Coffee Concert 14 December 2014 Apollon Musagète Quartet
Last year I wrote about the Apollon Musagète Quartet in glowing terms. Ever since then I have asked myself why I got so carried away, how could I have put them above other wonderful string quartets around, including Brighton’s own, much loved, Heath Quartet. Two bars into the Dvorak C major Quartet opus 61 and I remembered exactly what it was that made them so special. They play with an exquisite delicacy but also an intensity that is quite extraordinary. I have never thought those opening bars were anything special; but they played them with such expressive phrasing, such understated passion, that those bars will never be the same again.
And so it was throughout the quartet. Impeccable ensemble, perfect balance, a shared understanding of the music, turned what I have always thought of as one of Dvorak’s lesser works, into music that was thrilling from start to finish. There’s nothing showy about the way they play: tempi were modest, dynamics were not extreme. It’s that there was a purpose about every note, a deeply serious purpose that turned every phrase into something glorious. To pick out just two examples: in the first movement there is a little bridge between two passages where the first violin plays a rising scale and the others come in when he reaches the top. Pawel Zalejski started his run quietly and got quieter as he went up, slowing the last few, barely audible, notes like a stream that seems to hesitate on the brink before crashing over into the waterfall. Magic. In the second movement there’s a point when Dvorak abandons melody and has his players moving from one key to another, low down, quiet, as though groping through the darkness, before Piotr Szumiel on viola went up on tiptoe and hauled them back out of the pit with an achingly played melody.
The pieces played in the second half were unknown to most of the audience: the first quartets of Szymanowski and Gorecki. The Szymanowski is a complex, deeply felt piece from 1917, not unlike early Shoenberg, that I want to get to know better. The Gorecki is another repetitive piece with plenty of his “head-banging” style that I would happily never hear again. The audience, me included, were completely carried along by both, such was the conviction and lucidity of the playing. We even loved the encore by Schulhoff, and his work doesn’t usually get cheered in London, let alone Brighton and Hove. Why did this second half go down so well? We were, of course, putty in their hands after the Dvorak. And they played these more recent works with irresistible passion. But also it is a tribute to the Coffee Concert audience, who have, over the 15 or so years of their existence (counting the glorious days at the Old Market) come to be able to tell the excellent from the merely good, and come to open their minds to new experiences in music.