Royal String Quartet at Wigmore Hall – Debussy & Tchaikovsky

String Quartet in G minor, Op.10
String Quartet No.1 in D, Op.11

Royal String Quartet [Izabella Szałaj-Zimak & Elwira Przybyłowska (violins), Marek Czech (viola) & Michał Pepol (cello)]

Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood

Reviewed: 1 July, 2013
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Royal String Quartet. Photograph: Łukasz PepolThe string quartets of Debussy and Tchaikovsky are more closely related than one might think. Debussy’s early works bear at times the influence of his Russian counterpart, particularly the one-movement Symphony and the Piano Trio, both from 1880. The String Quartet (Debussy’s only such work) was published in the year of Tchaikovsky’s death, 1893, and is much more accomplished than either of those works, with some of its busier passages recalling Tchaikovsky with their lightly Slavonic air, which this performance by the Royal String Quartet exposed. At first the melodies from Izabella Szałaj-Zimak’s first violin were hard to distinguish amongst the rest of the group’s probing, but as the performance developed and the ear became attuned the players’ relatively rich sound suited Debussy’s sentiments. The second movement was notable for its urgency through quick-fire pizzicatos, and restored a humorous element missing from the first movement. The Andantino was closer to adagio in tempo but ideally proportioned; the slower pace allowing freedom of expression and a breather for reflection in Marek Czech’s sensitively delivered viola solos.

It is a mystery why the three string quartets of Tchaikovsky are not heard more often. In the First, bursting with melodic ideas and interesting counterpoint, the Royal musicians used their vibrato sparingly to bring out the contrast between the restful theme and fractious development in the first movement, while in the lively scherzo the parallels with Schubert were evident, topped off with a lovely diminuendo at the end. The famous Andante cantabile, placed second, and so beloved by Tolstoy, made a solemn but deeply felt appearance. The finale found Szałaj-Zimak’s violin line floating above the busy detailing before Czech and Michał Pepol explored the ruminative second theme. The Royal String Quartet makes a beautiful sound, particularly in pianissimos, something confirmed by closing this BBC Lunchtime Concert with an understated encore, an arrangement of ‘A chtóz tam puka’ from Szymanowski’s Six Kurpian Songs (the ones for a cappella choir), Szałaj-Zimak adding a percussive element by knocking on the wood of her violin.

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