Sheer Delight from the Škampa Quartet
Skampa Quartet at Wigmore Hall, 6. June 2014
Their interpretations and performances of the music of their homeland have been foremost in establishing the Škampa Quartet’s esteemed reputation, and in this recital – in which the Slavonic melodies by turns bloomed with buoyant optimism and wept with nostalgic longing – it was plainly evident why they have been celebrated as masters of the Czech repertoire.
But, our journey ‘home’ began in neighbouring Austria, with Haydn’s final complete string quartet, the Op.77 No.2 in F, one of only two completed of a set of six commissioned by Prince Lobkowitz in 1799. Whatever the reasons for 67-year-old Haydn’s failure to fulfil the commission – ailing health and energy, the distraction of the composition his oratorio The Seasons, or disconcertment upon the publication of Beethoven’s radical and proficient Op.18 quartets created for the same patron – lack of musical invention was certainly not among them.
I felt that the quartet took a little time to settle at the opening of the Allegro moderato, but by the time the repeat of the exposition was reached the easy conversation was in full swing, the first violin’s melody full of beguiling grace, its elaborations effortlessly delivered by Helena Jiříkovská, leading to increasing enrichment by the inner voices.
The fairly light, airy sound of the first movement was succeeded by a more earthy robustness in the Minuet; here, the temporally destabilising rocking fifths and octaves of the cello assumed a rustic flamboyance as the players raced through the jokey Presto. A quiet lyricism characterised the Trio, the warm D flat tonality underpinned by cellist Lukáš Polák’s rich low pedals. The Škampa showed their instinctive appreciation of the formal properties of the music, negotiating the odd inconclusiveness of the Trio with naturalism, convincingly leading us back to the return of the Minuet.
Similarly, the idiosyncrasies of the Andante were absorbed into the compelling, at times quite operatic, whole. The cello’s steady repeating quavers imbued a march-like feeling to the opening duet with the first violin, and this onward propulsion provided a cohering centre around which the melody was subject to contrapuntal, developmental and harmonic explorations. The Vivace finale showcased Jiříkovská’s nimble finger-work, but each player assumed individuality within the busy four-voice texture. The canonic complexities were lucidly distinguished, and the concentrated material felt fresh and invigorating. With the closing bars growing ever softer, the forte cadential chords were rich and sunnily positive.
We entered a world of a completely different hue with Borodin’s Quartet No.2. Adéla Štajnochrová’s poised low A initiated the cello’s radiant tune, the first of the quartet’s infinitely affectionate melodic outpourings which reportedly embody the composer’s love for his wife, Ekaterina, and were composed to evoke his feelings when they met and fell in love in Heidelberg 20 years earlier.
The animated passages were invigorated by fluid syncopations and resonant accents; the rallentandos were coaxingly suave. But the expressive sensibility of this movement was nowhere more powerfully communicated than in violist Radim Sedmidubský’s resonant cantabile, his viola turned towards the audience (the violist was seated opposite the first violin) to sing forth opulently.
The Scherzo sparkled, and once again the formal complexities and tensions were assuredly negotiated, the chromatic waltz-like runs deliciously unhurried and dreamy. The impassioned Notturno was a tragic drama; the cello’s opening soliloquy throbbed with controlled intensity – although at times I felt that Polák was pushing the other players forward somewhat. After the profound ardency of the theme, the counterpoint of the central section was dazzling; and the coda, as cello and first violin joined once more in a silvery ascent, was beautifully tender.
The halting introduction – hints of Beethoven’s ‘Muß es sein’? – to the Finale was despatched fairly swiftly, the unison pairings perfectly attuned, and the ensuing Vivace cast a nod in the direction of the previously heard Haydn frolic, although the contrasting brooding passages resonated more darkly. Thus, there was joy, fervency and wistfulness in this extremely gratifying performance of Borodin’s musical ‘love letter’.
Despite its popular nickname, Dvořák’s ‘American’ Quartet seems to me full-bloodedly Bohemian, and the Škampa relished the romantic idealism and pride expressed in the composer’s impassioned idiom, Sedmidubský’s opening tune dancing with life and bursting through the shimmering, oscillating violin thirds. The organically evolving melodies rang forth with lyrical eloquence, but a driving energy was sustained: grace perfectly balanced with vigour, each mood perfectly captured.
Moreover, the way the individual voices – dignified cello pizzicato, violin syncopations, rocking arpeggios from the viola, and the first violin’s pensive melody – blended into a whole at the start of the Lento was both impressive and moving. The movement was unfailingly songful throughout, but the viola’s chromatic disturbance of the closing cello lament injected a subtle but telling note of tragedy.
An incisive unison for cello and second violin kicked off the Scherzo (molto vivace) with briskness and fleetness, and the displaced rhythmic motifs – twos against threes – were made to feel relaxed and natural, creating a carefree mood. In the more mysterious Trio, the players’ attention to detail brought forth every nuance of the varying timbres and textures.
In the Finale, I doubt that there was a foot in the Hall that was not tapping to the beat of the vigorous dance that the Škampa launched with joyful freedom. The lucidity of the brief Meno mosso brought a temporary respite before the unstoppable, effervescent verve resumed, sweeping to an exhilarating close.
Claire Seymour, Sean and heard International, 8. June 2014