Skampa & Haas Quartets – Wigmore Hall (2 April)

String Quartet No.1 in B minor, Op.50
String Quartet No.1 in E minor (From my life)
Octet in E flat, Op.20

Skampa Quartet
[Pavel Fischer & Jana Lukásova (violins), Radim Sedmidubsky (viola) & Peter Jarusek (cello)]

Haas Quartet
[Veronika Jarusková & Linda Leharová (violins), Pavel Nikkl (viola) & Lukás Polák (cello)

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 2 April, 2003
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

The “Director’s Festival”, taking place over the course of William Lyne’s last season as the Wigmore Hall’s Director has provided the opportunity to hear numerous artists and ensembles associated with the venue in recent years. One such is the Skampa Quartet, artists-in-residence at the Wigmore during 1994-9, and a quartet at home over the repertoire of two centuries.

Not that Prokofiev’s First Quartet is exactly a repertoire work. Indeed, this complex and ambiguous statement from the latter end of the composer’s ’Western years’ tends to be more admired than played. The agitated alternation of themes in the opening ’Allegro’ finds Prokofiev harnessing his predilection for sharp contrasts to a formal coherence which denotes his then recent close study of Beethoven’s quartets. The Skampa did justice to its subtly modified sonata procedure, and at a tempo which encompassed the movement whole, then launched into the central ’Vivace’ – with its restive ’Andante molto’ epigraph – with verve. The presence of Bartók’s Third and Fourth Quartets is evident in the music’s contrapuntal dexterity and rhythmic trenchancy – a culmination of one aspect of Prokofiev’s music which dates back to his first published piano pieces over 20 years before.

The ’Andante’ similarly encapsulates the expressive intensity of Prokofiev’s Scriabinesque early orchestral scores and is the thematic and emotional culmination of the work (interesting that Shostakovich’s Sixth Symphony, also in B minor, of 1939 adopts its formal procedure in reverse); it exhibits a plangent melancholy ideally suited to quartet timbre – in a way which eludes the later transcriptions for string orchestra and piano. The brief but manic climax looks back to the Second Symphony of 1927 in its feeling of desperation masquerading as aggression: a quality which the muted coda does nothing to alleviate.

To the degree that this work fashions unity out of fragmentation, it would have been interesting to follow it with Smetana’s Second Quartet – a piece whose overall coherence is very much at the discretion of the interpreters. Instead, the Skampa gave us his First Quartet (1876) – a less imaginative choice, but appropriate in that it embodies a similar frankness and honesty to the Prokofiev. The Skampa must have performed it many times, but there was nothing jaded about the searing emotional outpouring of the opening ’Allegro’, with its dynamic turbulence and oscillating inner parts. Violist Radim Sedmidubsky was lithely expressive here and in the polka’s high spirits, with the searching inwardness of the ’Largo’ bringing out the best in the ensemble. The piercing harmonic fatally interrupting the ’Vivace’ – a graphic representation of the tinnitus which overcame Smetana two years before – was tellingly ’bent’ by Pavel Fischer, before the coda of fleeting reminiscences, permeated by an expression of ’painful regret’.

After two such troubled masterpieces, emotional balance was restored with what, 178 years on, is still the greatest work by a teenage composer. For this performance of Mendelssohn’s Octet, the Skampa was joined by the Haas Quartet – named after the ill-fated Czech composer – a group who, still in their early- and mid- ’twenties, are clearly one to watch. Collectively, the eight players brought out the textural contrasts as well as the visceral immediacy of Mendelssohn’s writing – the highlights being a warmly reflective ’Andante’ and a quicksilver but never rushed Scherzo. A pity the last two movement were not played attacca, maintaining musical continuity in counterbalance to the imposing opening ’Allegro’, but the energy generated carried the performance through to its affirmative close.

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