Škampa String Quartet & Stephen Hough at Wigmore Hall – Janáček, Smetana & Dvořák

Piano Sonata 1.X.1905, From the Street
String Quartet No.2 in D minor
Piano Quintet in A, Op.81

Steven Hough (piano)

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

Reviewed by: Colin Clarke

Reviewed: 20 December, 2011
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Škampa Quartet. Photograph: Jakub LudvíkThe death of Czech politician, playwright and poet Václav Havel (1936-2011) cast a shadow over this sell-out concert. Stephen Hough announced that this Wigmore Hall concert with the Škampa Quartet was dedicated to the ex-President. The music was entirely fitting, especially the first piece, Janáček’s Piano Sonata. Unrest in Moravia led to the death of a young workman, František Pavík. The Sonata is cast in two movements, ‘Premonition’ and ‘Death (the composer unhelpfully burnt the third). The music is anguished at heart, something which felt rather blunted in Hough’s performance. There was no doubting his technique – the rapid, pedal-free passages were magnificently rendered. The stasis of the second movement was well painted, however, a model of initial restraint and a blossoming into a climax that was perfectly judged.

There was a measure of authenticity, though, to the Škampa Quartet’s performance of the Smetana that took the evening to another level. The natural way the opening melted into an identifiably Czech lyricism spoke eloquently for the abilities of the players. Smetana’s Second String Quartet is a late work that paints a bleak picture a world away from The Bartered Bride – the composer’s deafness had accessed him the darkest parts of his persona, and in this music he lays them bare, nowhere more so than in the furioso elements of the third movement, here bordering on the operatic in its intensity. There was a temptation to revel in the Škampa’s expertise, but Smetana’s heartbreaking sophistication was fully honoured.

Finally (or almost) was Dvořák’s radiant Piano Quintet. A gorgeously rich and expressive line from Lukáš Polák attested to the affection Czechs have for this music; the fire the Škampa Quartet as a whole brought confirmed impressions. A pity Hough could not match this fire; similarly, it was the Czech players who reacted more finely to the darker moments of the score. And, in contrast, sometimes it was impossible not to smile at some of the warmth emanating from the two violinists’ contributions. Credit is also due to Sedmidubský’s darkly-toned solos. The performance had so much in its favour – a cracking pace for the ‘Furiant’ and lots of wit to the finale. Hough excelled in the sparkling passages.

There was a brief, seasonal encore – Silent Night (Tichà Noc in Czech). Nice!

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