Leontovych String Quartet – 8th January

String Quartet in F, Op.96 (American)
String Quartet No.1 (1974)
String Quartet No.2 in F, Op.22

Leontovych String Quartet
Oleh Krysa (violin)
Peter Krysa (violin)
Borys Deviatov (viola)
Volodymyr Panteleyev (cello)

Reviewed by: Ying Chang

Reviewed: 8 January, 2002
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Slavonic music is so strong a part of the West’s classical music heritage. It is easy though to forget that it represents cultural values and a lifestyle that is fundamentally rawer, less predictable and less safe than what we are used to ourselves. When Slavs play Slavonic music, it is a forcible reminder that differences in mentality lead naturally to an immediacy of passion and a fierceness of intellectual engagement that we in the West often struggle to reproduce.

The Leontovych Quartet, billed as “Ukraine’s top string quartet,” was formed in 1971 in Kiev and has been based in the United States since Ukrainian independence. Would this Quartet offer anything distinctively Ukrainian, as opposed to simply Soviet, and post-Soviet?

Like the Emerson Quartet, the Leontovych alternate first violinists. The two ensembles are very different. The Emerson brings pinpoint technical brilliance and a glossy modern sheen; the Leontovych has an authenticity of style, a grace and fluency that places it firmly within the classical tradition.

In this concert, Peter, the younger Krysa played first violin for the Dvorak. Although he’s smooth, fluent and alert, there is no doubt that the Quartet has a stronger sense of focus and balance when Oleh is first violin. In Dvorak, therefore, and because violist Borys Deviatov has an unusually strong musical personality and rich tone, the piece took on a very distinctive middle-heavy character, as if the melodies were floating above a raft of densely textured accompaniment, giving a strong folk character to the music.

A Slavonic group based in the States caught Dvorak’s openness and sunny melodies, adding a very Russian use of rubato for emotional effect. The playing was not perfect; there was the occasional stray harmonic and some imprecise intonation, which was secondary to a very profound understanding of the music’s spirit. A parallel would be the Vegh quartet: the same depth of commitment allied to the occasional technical fluff.

There are a number of Ukrainian composers currently active; their work has been disseminated as much in the States and Germany as at home. Valentin Silvestrov’s consciously post-modern music is accessible; his first attempt at a string quartet, Quartetto Piccolo, is rigidly twelve-tone. The opening and conclusion of No.1 is very beautiful – cavatina-like writing gradually deconstructed into tonal elements and resolved at the end, almost, but not quite harmoniously.This was a persuasive and polemical interpretation. The piece – or at least the contortions of its central section – was too difficult to love on a first hearing; though it was fine advocacy for new Ukrainian music.

Tchaikovsky’s rarely-heard Second Quartet set Silvestrov’s within a context of fragmentation and experimentation, and reminded that Tchaikovsky is far from simply being the composer of comfortable melodies. The Nutcracker, First Piano Concerto and Pathetique Symphony are prime examples of how Western culture has tamed Slavonic music and presented only its most easily digested aspects.

This performance told of Tchaikovsky the mentally tortured man, and as a composer who looked both forwards and back. The Second Quartet contains traces of Beethoven, not least his three ’Rasumovsky’ Quartets (this family of musical patrons was Ukrainian), and Schubert. With Tchaikovsky, the Leontovych was on home ground. The rhythmic pulse was so strong, especially in the first movement, that Tchaikovsky’s jagged, sometimes awkward, and certainly allusive style, was compelling.

As an encore, the Quartet played the scherzo from Shostakovich’s Third. In some ways this was the most completely successful performance – utterly assured technically, taken at a fine clip, and also given a rhythmical certainty and drive that was not only genuinely Russian but specifically Cossack. The Cossacks are usually the only aspect of Ukrainian history the lay Westerner has come across; in this encore, that was all one had to know about.

This was the Leontovych’s London debut – it will be welcomed back.

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