More Enthralling Performances of Czech Music from the Škampa String Quartet

14/02/2016

Suk, Janáček, P. Fischer: Škampa String Quartet (Helena Jiřikovská, Aděla Štajnochrová [violins]; Radím Sedmidubský [viola]; Lukáš Polák [cello]). LSO St Luke’s, London, 11.2.2016 (CC)

Suk, Meditation on an Old Bohemian Chorale, Op. 35

Janáček, String Quartet No. 2, “Intimate Letters”

Pavel Fischer, String Quartet No. 1, “Morava”

This was the second of the concerts covered by the Škampa Quartet due to the indisposition of the Pavel Haas Quartet. This event covered broader territory, taking in a short and lesser-known work by Suk and a String Quartet by Pavel Fischer. Fischer studied at the Prague Conservatory with Milan Škampa before becoming one of the co-founders and leader of the original Škampa Quartet line-up, leaving in 2007 to devote his time to composition.

First, though, came the Meditation on an Old Bohemian Chorale by Josef Suk, written in 1914. The original title is Meditace na staročeský choral „Svatý Vaclave”, which actually means “Meditation on an Old Czech Chorale, Saint Wenceslas”. It opens gently on solo viola (beautifully done by Radím Sedmidubský), with a long, warm line that blossoms out into what sounded here like a viol consort-like web of counterpoint. First violinist Helena Jiřikovská soared beautifully over this, leading to a passionate, heartfelt climax. The piece is based on a twelfth-century hymn to St Wenceslas, a tenth century Christian martyr, who here in the UK we might know via rather more Christmassy connotations.

Rather better known is Janáček’s Second Quartet, nicknamed “Intimate Letters” (1928) in recognition of his fiery correspondence with his love and obsession, Kamila Stösslová. The passionate nature of the writing is only matched by the scope of the composer’s imagination. A variety of performance techniques are used, but these are always integrated into the musical language and the structure of the piece. The wonderfully steely opening (viola, then soon thereafter mirrored by cello as an echo) and the radiant arrival of the final chord in the first movement set the stage for a consummate performance. It was second violinist Aděla Štajnochrová whose violin contributions shone in the second movement, her deep-toned response to Sedmidubský’s line unutterably potent. In fact, this whole Adagio was a glorious outpouring; the third movement (Moderato) held both proper pianissimos and full contrasts, while the rollicking dance of the finale gave way brilliantly to its more reflective section via a superb held silence. This was a stunning performance.

The Škampa Quartet has recorded a whole disc of music by Pavel Fischer for Supraphon (as well as the present quartet, it includes String Quartet No. 2, brilliantly subtitled “Wild Mountain Thyme”, the Third Quartet, “Mad Piper”, and a selection of smaller pieces). The First Quartet, “Morava” of 2008 and written specifically for a concert by the present quartet in Carnegie Hall, New York, is cast in five short movements, with the second movement Lento the longest. The influence of folk music is clear, particularly that of Moravian cimbalom music; there’s also a youthful energy and propulsive rhythmic drive to the faster music. The viola stoppings of the old Roma lament that opens the Lento were stunningly done, while the cello, here the expressive virtuoso Lukáš Polák, holds sway in the third (other quartet members are asked to clap off-beats and play percussion instruments while the cello enjoys the ongoing czardas). The next movement hinges on what is best described as a ghost of a melody before a pronounced folk element takes over for the jaunty folk dance of the finale.

Sedmidubský introduced the encore by saying “because one can never have enough Fischer …” and true to his word, we were gifted the third movement, “Carpathian” (Sedmidubský called it “Carpathian Song”) of Fischer’s Third Quartet. A gift indeed.

Colin Clarke 

This concert will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 at 1pm on Wednesday, March 16 as part of a three-day sequence of lunchtime concerts; the concert reviewed last week will be broadcast on Tuesday, March 15.

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