String Quartet No.1 in E minor (From my Life)
String Quartet No.1 (Kreutzer Sonata)
Škampa Quartet [Helena Jiříkovská & Adéla Štajnochrová (violins), Radim Sedmidubský (viola) & Lukáš Polák (cello)]
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 4 February, 2016
Venue: Jerwood Hall, LSO St Luke's, London
It might have been family illness on the part of the Pavel Haas Quartet’s viola-player as occasioned four replacement appearances this month, but the Škampa Quartet is always a welcome visitor to London – not least when playing Czech repertoire that understandably lies at the heart of its music-making.
Although it may no longer be taken to task for its ‘orchestral’ manner of writing, Smetana’s First Quartet (‘From my Life’, 1876) is still regarded more for the veracity of its emotions than its intrinsically musical qualities. Not that these were lacking here – the Škampa members launching its opening movement with keen awareness of a sonata design that takes in anguish and defiance before its resigned ending. The Scherzo was given with due emphasis on its polka undertow, while the slow movement was not without moments of restlessness as heighten its prevailing eloquence. The accelerating velocity of the Finale might have been too much of a good thing, were it not for the emotional emphasis the Škampa players accorded its extended coda; moving from dread, via realisation, to acceptance as if summarising the trajectory of this work as a whole.
From here to Janáček’s First Quartet (‘Kreutzer Sonata’, 1923), or at least the first of those to survive, is notably less in emotional than in temporal terms. What in Smetana, though, were subjective experiences objectively rendered are here collapsed into a formal continuity as draws its four movements into a rapidly accumulating unity. The performers rightly gave the first two of these attacca, and if the pauses between those that followed might ideally have been avoided, it yet did little to undermine the build-up to what remains one of the most extraordinary Finales in the string-quartet literature – akin to a freely-evolving fantasia such as brings the work’s febrile emotion to its fatalistic denouement: Janáček invoking Tolstoy’s tragic novella as if to admonish his own guilt concerning his failed marriage and, by doing so, gain himself a measure of inner peace.
A fine showing, then from the Škampa Quartet – which returns at lunchtime on February 11 for the second (and finer) of Janáček’s Quartets, along with the disarming ‘St Wenceslas’ Meditation by Suk and the First Quartet by the present ensemble’s founder, Pavel Fischer.