Chamber Music No.1

String Quartet No.1 (The Kreutzer Sonata)
Piano Quintet in A, Op.81

Škampa Quartet & Itamar Golan (piano)

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 19 July, 2004
Venue: Lecture Theatre, Victoria & Albert Museum, London

The first of the Monday lunchtime “Proms Chamber Music” recitals, and an instructive pairing of major works by Czech composers who, though born just thirteen years apart andcolleagues for part of their careers, represented two radically different outlooks in their maturity.

Certainly Janáček’s First Quartet – completed in 1923, though reworked from a discarded piano trio of seven years earlier – epitomises the angular lyricism of his last years. Inspired by Tolstoy’s novella of jealously and mental cruelty resulting in murder, the four movements have numerous motifs in common – such that the piece most often comes alive when played as a continuous whole. That the Škampa Quartet defined each as aseparate entity and still maintained unbroken momentum says much for their immersion in this music. The halting Beethoven references in the second movement were slyly touched in, while the wrenching emotion of the finale was tangibly rendered – creating a frisson such as few works in the medium can equal.

All this is a far cry from the equanimity of Dvořák’s Piano Quintet,composed in 1887 at a crossroads between the Classical virtues of his work over the previous decade and the more overt subjectivity of much that was to follow. Joined by pianist Itamar Golan, the Škampa let the rhapsodic first movement unfold at a leisurely pace – eschewing the exposition repeat and buildingreal expressive weight as the main ideas reach their heightened reprise. The ‘Dumka’ slow movement is among the composer’s most affecting, and Golan’s dovetailing of the main motif into the string texture allowed its many harmonic shadings to emerge unencumbered. The scherzo, taken at a driving pace, was superbly sustained, and the finale – despite passing lapses ofintonation – capped the work with its rhythmic buoyancy.

A pity that the recital had to finish in line with Radio 3’s afternoonschedule, as the Škampa looked ready to provide an encore. Even so, it set a benchmark that forthcoming recitals in this series – all located in the ideal chamber acoustic of the V & A’s Lecture Theatre – will be hard-pressed to equal.

  • Concert rebroadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Saturday 24 July at midday
  • BBC Proms 2004

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