Coffee Concert 17th December 2017 – Zemlinsky Quartet – Review by Andrew Polmear

The Zemlinsky flew in from Prague to give this concert and flew home again afterwards. From the audience’s point of view it was worth every minute of their time. From the start they did everything right. They walked on stage looking pleased to be there. The violist, Petr Holman, spoke briefly, saying how pleased they were to come to Brighton, which was extraordinarily modest; we were the ones pleased that a world-famous quartet had come to play for us. He made no complaint about the partial failure of the heating system. They sat in an order that is uncommon, though not rare, of violin I, violin II, cello, viola, giving the viola a more prominent position than usual. Petr Holman exploited this to the full, turning to the audience whenever he had a solo, not just to point his instrument towards us but also to smile at us encouragingly. The other player who can disappear a bit is the second violin. Not here. Pter Střižek is not only visually the most dramatic performer in the quartet, rising off his seat when things get exciting, but he plays out as loudly as the leader. This made for some thrilling passages that would not have worked so well with a second violin content to play “second fiddle”. In fact, it was a quartet of equals, all of them great communicators with their audience.

Beethoven’s Opus 18 No. 1 was written in 1799 and is usually played in a somewhat classical style, a little restrained, a little elegant, albeit with some acknowledgement to the early hints of the revolution that Beethoven was initiating. The Zemlinsky were having none of this. They played it like the Romantic piece that it is: fierce, funny, passionate, lyrical. Their attack was tremendous, their dynamics were extreme, their tempi, in the fast movements, were very fast, their rubati were beautifully executed. At the same time, they played with extraordinary precision and great clarity so that the more classical moments in the piece were not swamped. A further word about the dynamics: Beethoven will sometimes ask his players to play fortissimo right to the end of a bar then drop to piano at the start of the next. It’s very hard to bring this off. The Zemlinsky do it by putting in a tiny break between the bars. It emphasises the change from loud to soft. It can sound mannered, but in their hands it was hardly noticeable and worked perfectly.

When he spoke Petr Holman said that the composer Kryštof Mařatka knew he was taking a risk, working on a piece Janáček had written for wind sextet, Mládi, and arranging it for string quartet. However, he didn’t think it was too great a risk because both groups are made up of instruments that are close to each other. I don’t see it that way at all. I would say that the strength of the string quartet is the intensity that comes from the similarity of the sounds, while the strength of a wind group comes from the difference between their sounds. Each wind instrument has its own personality and composers tend to write music that suits that personality. So my admiration for Mařatka is immense because he has produced an arrangement that is a triumph. The music conjures up the world of The Cunning Little Vixen, a woodland of extraordinary beauty, of humour and of a wistful stillness, but also of roughness, cruelty and disaster. It was full of characteristic Janáček intervals and clashes, of snatches of folk tunes repeated over and over. The Zemlinsky gave a performance of total commitment, following the swirling music through its changing moods. I cannot, at this moment, imagine it written for anything other than strings!

I have least to say about Schumann Opus 41 No. 3. It was as committed a performance, and as successful, as the other two pieces but it was the least surprising because everyone tries to play Schumann this way: packed with beauty, with fury, with lyricism, with humour. They captured all that, and were wonderful with the rhythmic contortions. Again the speeds were fast, especially the last movement. What a concert!