Welcome, the excitement of a Slavic string quartet! It’s exactly two years since the last one at the Coffee Concerts – then the Bennewitz Quartet, fellow Czechs of the Zemlinsky Quartet who today flew into the English cold from Prague, but not to warm us with cocoa and smooth, soft blankets.
The comparative shock of early-December snow in southern England was echoed in the sudden rawer wind, more bracing air, and shards of ice in the Zemlinskys’ sound and performing personality. And instead of an inclination to rush from the chill into cosiness, the audience wrapped tighter their scarves and held out their gloved hands for Beethoven, Robert Schumann and a 43-year-old Czech’s convincing recasting of Janáček wind music in warmer string clothing.
Since the December 2015 of the Bennewitz, the Coffee Concert strings diet has been the polish, refinement and inner probing of London-based north European quartets – the Elias, Heath and Castalian. Co-incidentally, exactly 12 months before the Bennewitz came the Poles of the Apollon Musagete. Is it something about December? Is it to set us up for winter? Is it part if the annual fuel allowance? Are we having our annual jab?
Not that Slav musicians lack polish, refinement or enlightening investigation. But something common to them seems to be a contrary aversion as performers to hiding individually behind their sound or sublimating themselves to the collective whole. No sooner were the Zemlinskys onstage than violist Petr Holman was saying an almost cheery ‘Hello’ to the audienc, paying tribute to the series in its venue, and saying how they had been looking forward to playing in it.
I have this suspicion that Central European string players have proportionately spent more of their younger days and formative years playing on street corners, at local dances and in watering hostelries. I sense the edge, attack and spontaneity needed in those environments stays in their fiddle and cello cases afterwards and comes out next time with the instruments. There seems something different in their blood, and it’s not instinctive restraint.
Blond second violinist Petr Střižek felt no compulsion to sit still. Legs changing position, feet likewise, bouncing on his seat, almost rising to half-stand at some moments, extra flourishes of the bow after key short notes. All physical animations were a musical response but he was also concerned in driving and binding together he, viola and cello when they were in accompanying roles behind the first violin.
The broadly built Holman sat on our right-hand end – more often cello territory and the way the Elias, Heath and Castalians line up. He similarly flourished his bow but at key moments in the music for his viola, a darker and more subdued instrument, he turned it towards the audience to improve its audible prominence. Both men’s actions communicated something important was happening and drew the audience into not only their own artistry but that of the group. We became intrigued by the comparative behaviour of the other two members.
Holman’s viola and František Souček’s immersively concentrated first violin (on our extreme left) therefore conversed for us in stereo and the binding, bedrock sound of the cello, this time facing the audience instead of being side-on, spoke more openly and operated more centrally and integrally in the instrumental layout. Holman confirmed to me afterwards their layout was deliberate and is the quartet’s own non-dogmatic personal choice.
Beethoven was the first beneficiary if the Zemlinskys’ abiding verve, rigour and urgency. The Zemlinskys were awaking us with the composer’s first quartet and showed me, for one, that its high-quality content made this composer’s debut work in the genre no less auspicious or portentous than his first symphony, written only a year later. And signified Beethoven’s immediate mastery of two quite different worlds, the quartet intimately and confidingly demanding; the symphony externally and outwardly so.
The Zemlinskys’ energy champed at the bit in the Janáček ‘Youth’ Suite, in an all-Czech show where Kryštof Mařatka’s skill enabled the quartet restlessly to adopt and create their own textures of the golden youthful spirit and attitude, its ardour, tension and the sometimes crazed fury and urgency that sits so vividly in the wind sextet version.
Finally came Robert Schumann, the romantic on the morning’s programme, and here the Zemlinskys were ready to mark up the edginess and agitation in the score which other quartets might be less instinctively accentuate. Schumann’s was a disturbed mind and a deeply-wrought heart liberated by music. As with Smetana and Janáček, Slavic quartets are familiar with patients with awkward problems. They help us understand.
Zemlinsky Quartet: it’s another group name chosen in honour of an interesting and rewarding composer, not Czech but Austrian, admired by Brahms, and one I have heard and know I should investigate. Thanks for the prompt, gentlemen!