String Quartet No.2 in A minor, Op.13
String Quartet No.4 in D, Op.83
Apollon Musagète Quartet [Paweł Zalejski & Bartosz Zachłod (violins), Piotr Szumieł (viola) & Piotr Skweres (cello)]
Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood
Reviewed: 14 October, 2013
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London
The Apollon Musagète Quartet from Poland is a member of the BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artists scheme and here essayed two works notable for their nervous energy, communicated in very differing ways. Mendelssohn begins his second published String Quartet with an unconventional introduction in the major key that soon turns to the minor. The Apollon Musagète members played this passage very gracefully, as if to enhance the relative strife once the first movement proper got going. Then the motivic exchanges were laden with anxiety but the counterpoint remained fluent, the performance cohesive. The Adagio offered some respite, though the players opted against using vibrato at the start of its fugal episode, revealing the influence of Bach in the process. The scherzo was rather matter of fact, the opportunity for balletic grace missed by a firm and earthbound approach, until the trio which was appropriately skittish. Perhaps this was to set the scene for the powerful finale, notable for impressive ensemble and unity of thought. Paweł Zalejski delivered an impassioned solo on the approach to the final pages, which reached a particularly strong resolution.
Shostakovich wrote his String Quartet No.4 in 1949 while under intense scrutiny from Stalin and his regime, yet the work begins bathed in sunlight, but the dark clouds appear almost immediately, and from then on the music spends a lot of its time suggesting fear, with only the occasional hint of release from what appears to be unremitting darkness. The Apollon players conveyed these feelings very strongly, and although three of the four movements are marked Allegretto there was quite a difference between the tempos, with the last considerably slower than the first. In its dance music this finale, the most substantial of the four, finds the instruments close together in range, the sense of claustrophobia overwhelming, and Zalejski could be heard stamping his feet as the rhythmic drive became more pronounced. This was the climax of a performance that probed at every phrase, with solos from violist and cellist that were particularly effective, especially when using the mutes. The genial start of the first movement was a very thin disguise for the increasingly twisted discords that followed, while the graceful waltz of the second movement was also quickly soured. The scherzo bordered on the savage at times, the crunch of its chords driving home powerfully, the musicians investing a lot of emotion in this music, which ultimately left a bitter aftertaste. Stravinsky’s Tango as an encore was perhaps unnecessary, but was well-chosen nonetheless.