An exciting new string quartet takes the stage in London

Haydn, Janacek, Beethoven: Evropska Quartet – Rowena Kenally (violin), Adam Hill (violin), Anisa Arslanagic  (viola), Max Ruisi (cello). The Red Hedgehog, Archway Road, London. 23. 4. 2011 (KC)

Haydn: String Quartet in C, Op 76 No. 3 ‘Emperor’
Janáček: String Quartet No 1 ‘Kreutzer Sonata’
Beethoven: String Quartet in F Op. 59 N0. 1 ‘Razumovsky’

Last summer, these fine musicians, fresh from conservatories in London and Manchester, met at a  residency in Prague, where they decided to form a quartet. They worked with the one-time leader of the Škampa Quartet, Pavel Fischer, and also with members of the Wihan Quartet. The Badke Quartet in Britain, too, have given them considerable encouragement and help.

They have youth and vigour, together with a fine sense of ensemble, remarkable after just a few months’ acquaintance. This augurs well for their future relationship and career.

The outstanding item in their programme was the ‘Kreutzer Sonata’ quartet – one of the best and most vibrantly committed performances I have heard.  Pavel Fischer was the instigator in this choice. He suggested taking advantage of their residency in Prague by studying a notable Czech quartet – and then offering what may well be one of the most difficult. If so, then, this is a compliment to the Evropska – an indication that he realised that he had exceptional musicians to hand, able and ready to learn, with musical intelligence, humility and distinctive ability.

Without question, they presented a ‘Kreutzer Sonata’ of white-hot passion, intense expression and tenacious vigour. The pressure, rightly, was more or less constant. So far, so good. Now, what made this performance exceptional was their handling of the fragmentary musical phrases that comprise Janáček’s masterpiece. Each of these fragments held its own ambience and character, so that each one, in its own way, was striking and telling – many of them relating to Czech culture and folk idiom. Only rarely does a performance give these various phrases such vibrant individuality – yet they are the keynote and essence of the composer’s style. Clearly many hours’ dedicated work had gone into establishing this basic, ardent musical grammar.

Equally clearly, the Evropska had responded splendidly to incomparable teaching. That’s not all. As Rowena Kenally expressed in conversation, that’s only half the necessary work. The other half is to set these radiant fragments together and pull them into a whole – for that is part of Janáček’s musical grammar, too. This the quartet did splendidly, singing the work’s unity.

I stress the ‘Kreutzer Sonata’ quartet as the most accomplished performance of the three – the mark of what a distinguished, committed ensemble this quartet has the capacity to become. Beside this Janáček, Haydn’s ‘Emperor’ and Beethoven’s ‘Razumovsky’ No. 1 had many commendable qualities, such as intoxicating vigour, seamless ensemble and perceptive phrasing. Listening to them was exciting and enjoyable, but neither performance reached the consequence the Evropska discovered in the shining individuality of the Czech masterpiece.

This is a quartet to watch.

Ken Carter