Szymanowski Quartet at Wigmore Hall

Wacław z Szamotuł
Four Polish Chorales
String Quartet in B minor, Op.33/1
String Quartet No.2, Op.56
String Quartet No.13 in G, Op.106

Szymanowski Quartet [Andrej Bielow & Grzegorz Kotów (violins), Vladimir Mykytka (viola) & Marcin Sieniawski (cello)]

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 24 March, 2014
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Szymanowski Quartet. Photograph: Marco BorggreveWhether live or recorded, the Szymanowski Quartet has shown itself as at home in peripheral as in core repertoire, and this Wigmore Hall recital was no exception as it cast a distinctive overview across a Central European lineage more prolonged than might have been expected. Not that Wacław z [of] Szamotuł (fl. 1524-1560) wrote for the string-quartet medium, though this relatively short-lived figure – whom numerous of the following generation considered a “Polish Palestrina” – set a large number of religious texts, of which the four that had been (anonymously?) arranged here made for a cohesive sequence. The most arresting is that of Andrzej Trzecieski’s ‘Prayer when children go to sleep’, its ruminative unfolding around a tenor cantus firmus putting one in mind of Purcell’s viol fantasias over a century hence.

Although they are hardly neglected, Haydn’s Opus 33 String Quartets (1781) are perhaps underestimated next to the contrapuntal ingenuity of the Opus 20 or the thematic richness of the Opus 76 sets. Despite occasional fallibilities of intonation, the present ensemble made a persuasive case for the B minor – its bittersweet Allegro and sardonic scherzo intensified by an Andante whose tonal sideslips were evidently noted by Beethoven, then a finale whose motion is unrelenting up to the peremptory closing bars.

Good to see the String Quartets by Szymanowski are now receiving their due, of which the Second (1927) is audibly a product of the composer’s final creative phase with its inspiration in the folk-music of the Tatra region. The musicians had the measure of its elusive opening Moderato, with its almost improvisatory assembling of the four instruments into a texture of diaphanous poise that is only disturbed by the central exchanges before subsiding into nothingness; then found the right incisive manner in the central Vivace with its quizzical interplay of waltz and more energetic dance measures. It is in the finale that this music most directly approaches Bartók, but here the fugal discourse gradually amasses a momentum as holds good through to closing pages that bring the work decisively full circle.

Time was when Dvořák’s last two string quartets were admired rather than heard, but both now enjoy more frequent hearings – gratifyingly so with the Thirteenth (1895) which finds the composer on the brink of fresh innovation. Other groups have stressed its pre-echoes of Janáček and even Shostakovich, though the Szymanowski players brought it firmly within a late-nineteenth-century orbit: whether in an initial Allegro whose harmonic ambiguity and tonal vagaries are barely contained within the expansive sonata design, an Adagio whose warmly eloquent main theme is built to a climax of tangible fervency, a scherzo whose lithe energy is enhanced by its rhythmic trenchancy, or a finale that pointedly draws on earlier ideas in a manner akin to an experiential as well as thematic retrospective before its affirmative close.

An assured and insightful reading, then, which underlined the work’s claims to being among the masterworks of the literature. As the brief yet apposite encore was the ‘Polka’ from Shostakovich’s ballet The Golden Age.

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