Szymanowsky Quartet The Sixth and final Coffee Concert 2013-2014

The Corn Exchange,  Brighton Dome, Sunday March 16 2014   

Andrew Comben, who books the players for the coffee concert series, usually manages to choose players who are already in England, perhaps performing at the Wigmore Hall a day or two before or after their trip to Brighton. That wasn’t the case with the Szymanowski, who had flown in from Warsaw the morning of the concert. That may explain the slightly shaky start to Haydn Quartet Op. 33 No.1: the ensemble was wayward; the balance between the instruments was lopsided, the cello too heavy against very light tones from the violins; and a few fast passages were fluffed. They did settle down but I continued to have difficulties with their playing.

It was a very expressive reading of Haydn. The phrasing was beautifully crafted but at times too romantic for me; Haydn’s music is very much of his time and that was the eighteenth century. Playing it with too much expression strains the music beyond what it can bear. Similarly, the frequent changes of speed unsettled me. And above all, the players imposed little pauses between phrases, losing what is for me the glory of these quartets: long lines of exquisitely delicate music, always surprising the listener with changes of theme or key, while keeping everything rhythmical and understated, as though to say that everything was all right with the world. I have noticed that other Eastern European quartets play Haydn as the Szymanowski does, so it’s not right or wrong but a personal preference.

What didn’t work, for me, in the Haydn worked in spades in Szymanowsky’s Quartet No.2. This work plumbs many emotions but joy is not one of them: things are not all right in Szymanowski’s world. The first movement, muted throughout, is tender and achingly expressive, the second turbulent and disturbed, the third sombre and sad. I suspect that Szymanowski would have disapproved of my applying human emotions to a description of his music; he considered that “art stands above life, penetrates the essence of the universe”. But we have no other words to use. Now the quartet’s playing was quite wonderful, the balance perfect – those dark cello tones adding so much – the whispering lightness of the violins quite hair-raising. Such expressive playing made me feel that this was the only way to play this piece, every note was so convincing.

After the interval came the Dvorak G major quartet Op. 106. It’s a happier piece than the Szymanowski but it calls for playing that is just as expressive; and it was. If Dvorak has a weakness it is that he is prone to repeat a motif over and over again, like two tennis players, each at the back of the court, hitting the ball to and fro, waiting for an opening to emerge. The playing was so lyrical, at times tender, at times passionate, that for once I didn’t mind how long it went on.

I liked the way the Quartet looked; each man was clearly a character in his own right. They looked very at ease on stage, ready to enjoy what they were about to play. Friends behind me, however, commented that a trip to a barber, followed by a trip to a tailor, plus the purchase of a metronome, might have been a good idea. I was only prepared to agree about the metronome, and then only for Haydn. I would travel some way to hear them play anything from Beethoven onwards provided they play, and look, just as they do now.

Incidentally, that lovely encore was “Melody” by Myroslav Skoryk. Type ‘Skoryk’ into Youtube and you can see the piece played by the Szymanowsky Quartet themselves. 

Andrew Polmear