Schubert – Quartettsatz in C minor, D703
Szymanowski – String Quartet no.2, op.56
Beethoven – String Quartet no.2 in G major, op.18 no.2
Andrej Bielow, Grzegorz Kotów (violins)
Vladimir Mykytka (viola)
Marcin Sieniawski (violoncello)
The Wigmore Hall looked packed for this opening morning concert of 2011, with a considerable queue for returns as I arrived. Schubert’s 1820 C minor quartet movement is an oft-encountered friend on such programmes, perhaps at least as much on account of its single movement, overture-like status as anything else. Here the Szymanowski Quartet offered an unusually febrile reading. Though the second subject sounded as radiant as ever in its lyricism, the tense quality imparted to some of the other material sounded closer to Bartók, or perhaps to Szymanowski, than to Schubert as we generally know him.
At the other end of the programme stood Beethoven’s G major quartet, op.18 no.2. The first movement received a cultivated account, warmly characterised. If a little on the fast side, it was generally permitted space to breathe. The spirit of Haydn was quite aptly a guiding presence. Elegance proved the hallmark of the slow movement, Andrej Bielow’s first violin singing especially sweetly; the central Allegro section provided vivid, genuinely exciting contrast. The way in which the players tossed to and fro the opening theme of the scherzo could hardly fail to put a smile on the face, that thematic material remaining a guiding thread throughout Beethoven’s diversions. Despite some strange, unusually persistent Ivesian interference – a hearing aid? – the helter-skelter finale, full of life, again brought Haydn very much to mind.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, though, it was Szymanowski’s 1927 second string quartet which received the most individual, compelling performance. The composer’s mystical, perfumed world, so redolent of his opera King Roger, was announced in the very opening bar, and never left us – or rather, we never left it. This was clearly music that the quartet which bears Szymanowski’s name relishes and has internalised. The first movement presented a seductive outpouring of sinuous melodies, far more tightly organised than one might initially suspect. A sharp rhythmic profile was applied to the Tatra-inspired music of the second movement, without driving too hard. Transmuted dance rhythms sang, almost as if without intermediaries – until, that is, one remembered how they had been transmuted. Bartók was far from the only composer to weave such magic. The cumulative entries of the finale were well handled throughout, reminiscent of a slow thaw, blossoming even; the rhythmic freedom with which the Szymanowski players were able to invest their performance was never arbitrary, but clearly born of immersion in the composer’s idiom. Why, o why, do we not hear this music more often?