Škampa Quartet at Wigmore Hall – Shostakovich & Dvořák

String Quartet No.11 in F minor, Op.122
String Quartet No.15 in G, Op.106

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

Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood

Reviewed: 18 October, 2010
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

This well chosen program by the Škampa Quartet was very much a ‘light and shade’ affair, and made an extremely satisfying hour-long BBC Radio 3 Lunchtime Concert.

The Škampa began with one of Shostakovich’s most cohesive and compact string quartets, written in 1966 in memory of the Beethoven String Quartet second-violinist, Vassily Shirinsky. Its seven linked sections, played without a break over 15 minutes, bring to mind a compressed tribute to Beethoven’s masterly Opus 131 String Quartet, and contain music of great economy but also intense emotion.

As part of the tribute, Shostakovich often pits the first violin against the rest of the quartet, and Helena Jiříkovská captured the sense of struggle particularly in the fast ‘Etude’, in which her rapid figurations circled closely around a central pitch, struggling to break clear. At moments of repose the Škampa members were beautifully sensitive, creating a hush throughout the hall so that it was easy to pick out each individual voice, while they pressed home the composer’s ostinato passages so that they became impossible to avoid. The work began gracefully but with a sense of unease, which was heightened by the nervy fugal subject in the scherzo, along with its violin glissandos. These eerie effects returned in the final Moderato section, which retreated into itself, seemingly lost in thought.

By contrast, Dvořák’s final published string quartet (but not the last to be composed) received a gloriously uninhibited performance. There are few thrills in chamber music to compare with a Czech string-quartet playing the music of its home-country. The Škampa caught the composer’s happiness on his returning to Bohemia from America in 1895. The first movement, on the quick side, was a ray of sunshine, though the musicians were also careful to add a touch of shade for the less-extrovert second theme. Once again a feature of the performance was a close attention to dynamic markings, with Jiříkovská in particular resisting the temptation to dominate proceedings, the ensemble extremely well balanced. The beautiful slow movement suffered occasionally from lapses in tuning, but its lyrical sentiment was clear, while the scherzo drew attention to Dvořák’s remarkable melodic thrift, a largely monotone theme given plenty of character through its sprightly rhythm. The inevitable goal of this performance was the finale, which flourished through its relatively complicated development, delighting in the composer’s abundance of musical energy and thought.

The Škampa Quartet should also be commended for its skilful avoidance of distraction from the builders out the back of the hall, whose tapping and knocking was uncannily similar to that found at the end of the Shostakovich quartet!

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