Woven Words – Lutosławski Centenary 2013 – Royal College of Music string quartets play Szymanowski, Ligeti, Roussel and Lutosławski

String Quartet No.1 in C, Op.37
String Quartet No.1, ‘Métamorphoses nocturnes’
String Quartet in D, Op.45
String Quartet

Kallisto String Quartet [Michal Cwizewicz & Agata Darashkaite (violins), Tetsuumi Nagata (viola) & Benjamin Havas, cello] [Szymanowski]

Walmsley String Quartet [Erzsebet Racz & Brigid Coleridge (violins), Christine Anderson (viola) & Jane Lindsay, cello] [Ligeti]

Mira String Quartet [Joseph Devalle & Amy Tress (violins), Felicity Matthews (viola) & Sergio Serra (cello)] [Roussel]

Park String Quartet [Eunsley Park & John Garner (violins), Marie Schreer (viola) & Ariana Kashefi (cello)]

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 4 February, 2013
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Purcell Room

Witold Lutosławski (1913-94)beside the piano at his home. Photograph: W. Pniewski & L. KowalskiWoven Words, a series featuring the music of Witold Lutosławski (whose centenary fell last month), is unlikely to come up with a more distinctive or worthwhile concert than this: four string quartets, each performed by a different Royal College of Music ensemble, that together offered an inclusive as well as fascinating overview of the Polish composer’s evolution.

Although Lutosławski moved away decisively from the musical ethos of Szymanowski, the latter’s influence is evident from early on. Szymanowski’s own First String Quartet (1917), with its stylistic continuation of the Third Symphony (‘Song of the Night’) or First Violin Concerto. The Kallisto Quartet did justice to its indolently unfolding first movement and then brought an ecstatic inwardness to the central Andantino, before despatching the closing Vivace with brusque decisiveness. Hardly the musicians’ fault if this latter sounded too peremptory to serve adequately as a finale, Szymanowski having originally intended a further movement which, on the basis of the work as it now stands, he might have been wise to implement.

György Ligeti (1923-2006)Interesting that György Ligeti’s First Quartet (1954) should latterly have established its place in the post-war repertoire, as what was stylistically incongruous to an earlier generation holds no such problems for today’s performers and (most) listeners. The Walmsley Quartet rightly lived dangerously in a piece which admits of no emotional inhibition, for all that ensemble was often severely tested and the numerous interrelated sections were less effectively fused than they might have been. That said, there have been several memorable accounts of the piece in London over recent years, and it would be churlish to deny that this group had other than the measure of music whose emotional desolation is undimmed after six decades.

Albert Roussel (1869-1937)Following the interval came a rare outing for Albert Roussel’s String Quartet (1932). A product of his tensile neo-classicism, as exemplified in the Third Symphony, its often-intricate polyphony together with an intensive interplay of chromatic and modal elements makes its realisation more difficult than might be supposed. The Mira Quartet struggled a little in terms of intonation during the outer movements, though the cumulative emotional intensity of the Adagio was well brought off and the brief scherzo lacked nothing in effervescence. Qualities that Lutosławski picked up on accordingly in his earlier music (notably with the First Symphony), for all that his conceptual approach was soon to take a vastly different course.

Just how different was soon made plain in the composer’s own String Quartet (1964). One of the significant works in the modern literature, its ‘introductory movement’ and ‘main movement’ ground-plan was to serve Lutosławski well over his ensuing three decades of creativity, while its achievement as a sequence of four interdependent ‘mobiles’ (there being no score as such) tests the ensemble’s powers of coordination to the limit. Fortunately the Park Quartet came through unfazed in this respect – teasing out the initial subtleties of detail, before investing what follows with a surging expressive charge which was then carried over into the prolonged leave-taking with its vestigial allusions to earlier and dimly remembered events.

An impressive conclusion, then, to an engrossing evening’s music-making which had the capacity audience (for the most part) in its thrall. A pity such a programme only seems to emerge as part of series such as this: how beneficial it would be if other modern composers of comparable stature were regularly to be heard in the context of their mentors and forbears.

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