Royal String Quartet

String Quartet No.8 in C minor, Op.110
String Quartet in F, Op.135

Royal String Quartet [Izabella Szalaj-Zimak & Elwira Przybylowska (violins), Marek Czech (viola) & Michal Pepol (cello)]

Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood

Reviewed: 1 October, 2007
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Shostakovich’s Eighth String Quartet has suffered from over-exposure in recent years. This performance from the Royal String Quartet, given in suitably gathering gloom as the rain fell outside at the time of this BBC Lunchtime Concert, seemed to strip the work back to its essentials.

Much is made of the Eighth’s autobiographical basis, often at the expense of its cogent structure and the melodic qualities of its interlocking thematic material. The Royal Quartet displayed an immediate affinity with Shostakovich’s musical language, even if the opening Lento was deliberately slow and leaden, ponderous in its mannered movement. This served to spotlight the faster music when it arrived, however, and the white-hot Allegro molto was intentionally rough and ready in its execution. All four bows were close to the string, and the extended quote from the Second Piano Trio was given out with a heavy tread and no change of expression.

This was a gripping account, not one that looked for virtuoso means but instead sought to stress the dissonance as it occurred between the first violin and the rest of the quartet, nowhere more so than the uncomfortable closing pages – no resolution here.

Interestingly the three sweeping chords used by Shostakovich, supposedly depicting the dreaded sound of the police knocking at his door in the middle of the night, find an equivalent at the start of the finale in Beethoven’s final string quartet.

Here the context is vastly different, the mood far more congenial in a piece that readily demonstrates the composer’s sense of humour. The Royal was well tuned-in to the possibilities afforded by this, particularly in a light-hearted first movement. That said the preceding performance proved difficult to shake off, and the trio passage of the scherzo brought brief parallels with Shostakovich in Szalaj-Zimak’s rather savage approach to the violin part before the lighter, effective cross-rhythms resumed. The slow movement had a rapt opening but did wander expressively at times in the central sections, before an affirmative finale provided the answer to Beethoven’s initial ‘must it be?’ question posed in its opening phrase.

As an encore the Royal offered the light-footed Minuet from Haydn’s ‘Sunrise’ Quartet, elaborating on the good humour found in the Beethoven.

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