Škampa Quartet at Wigmore Hall [Schubert, Shostakovich & Dvořák]

Quartettsatz in C minor, D703
String Quartet No.3 in F, Op.73
String Quartet No.14 in A flat, Op.105

Škampa Quartet [Helena Jiříkovská & Daniela Součková (violins), Radim Sedmidubský (viola) & Lukáš Polák (cello)]

Reviewed by: Andrew Morris

Reviewed: 22 June, 2011
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Škampa Quartet. Photograph: Jakub LudvíkPerhaps an ensemble can be too precise? This was the overriding feeling left by this Wigmore Hall recital by the Škampa Quartet. It feels a cliché to say so, but the players were most comfortable in the music of their compatriot Dvořák. Elsewhere, it seemed that for all their transparency and style, an inquiring and varied insight was missing.

Schubert’s Quartettsatz of 1820 (with a following movement left at but a few bars) can pack the punch of a scaled-down Coriolan Overture (Schubert was always admiring of Beethoven, after all), but seemed curiously distracted in the Škampa musicians’ hands. It wasn’t for a lack of refinement, but if only the same care had gone into finding the work’s nervous energy. Helena Jiříkovská seemed to sum up the problem: her mellow but voluminous tone was admirable in isolation, but it never wavered and the effect was monochromatic.

To their credit, the players did demonstrate an ability to adapt their sound to the varying demands of the programme. Shostakovich’s Third Quartet immediately found a paring down of vibrato and using the unadorned sounds of open strings to present a marked contrast with Schubert. The musicians were always incisive in their rhythms and vivid in projection, but seemed some way off finding the spirit of this aggressive and conflicted work. The first scherzo’s banal military march was exact in execution but without Shostakovich’s needling irony. The connection between the fourth and final movements achieved a more appropriately pained concentration, with violist and cellist pursuing a more sensitive tack than their leader.

A little of the clarity of the Shostakovich might have enhanced their Dvořák further, but otherwise the Škampa Quartet was far more at ease with his work. Dvořák leads us astray at the work’s outset, intimating a tragedy that never materialises and instead embarks on a driving reverie reminiscent of the sunny Eighth Symphony. Immediately the Škampa musicians suggested more colour than had been the case before the interval and the fleet-footed scherzo was particularly involving. This time the breathless excitement of the finale seemed to have been built towards rather than merely arrived at; and, as an encore, there was one of Dvořák’s Cypresses.

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