Two Excellent String Quartets Combine to Great Effect

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Haydn, Beethoven & Mendelssohn:  Arcadia Quartet [Ana Török & Răsvan Dumitru (violins), Traian Boală (viola), Zsolt Török (cello)], Meccore Quartet [Wojciech Koprowski & Jaroslaw Nadrzycki (violins), Michal Bryla (viola), Karol Marianowski (cello)], Wigmore Hall, London 24.3.2015 (CS)

Haydn: String Quartet in E flat major Op.33 No.2 (‘The Joke’)
Beethoven: String Quartet No.1 in F major Op.18 No.1
Mendelssohn: String Octet in E flat major Op.20


On the evening of the opening day of the 2015 Wigmore Hall International String Quartet Competition, the First and Second Prize-winners from the 2012 Competition joined forces to perform, individually and collectively, three chamber masterpieces from the Classical era.

Formed in 2005 while students at the Gheorghe Dima Music Academy in Romania, the Arcadia Quartet have made a habit of winning prizes, taking First Prize in the 2014 Osaka International Chamber Music Competition, the 2011 Almere International Chamber Music Competition in 2011 and the International Chamber Music Competition Hamburg in 2009, in addition to the Wigmore’s own triennial event.

Haydn’s String Quartet in E flat, Op.33 No.2 proved the perfect vehicle for the Arcadia to display the elegance and grace of their playing.  Led by violinist Ana Török – whose strong, focused, beautifully shining tone was one of the highlights of the evening – the Quartet emphasised the lyricism and balance of Haydn’s writing, thereby making the witty irresolutions of the final movement, from which the work derives its nickname, all the more charming.  A firm upbeat initiated the opening cantabile melody of the Allegro moderato and this leaping semiquaver motif was subsequently passed between the players with decorum and eloquence.  The clarity of Török’s rapid passagework was impressive but she also took every opportunity to make the melody bloom.  The surprising modulatory meanderings of the development were given changing character, drawing in the listener, and with the recapitulation the melodic lines extended naturally, reaching persuasively for the close which was performed, appropriately, without fuss or show.

I loved the way that the peak of the Scherzo’s melody was heralded and enriched by a slight elongation and increased vibrato: in this way, the most simple of themes was polished with refinement.  The Trio was full of rustic charm, as the Arcadia perfectly strode the fine line between bucolic authenticity and wry parody.  Second violinist Răsvan Dumitru matched Török for warmth of tone, and the two violins blended beautifully when playing in thirds, first widely spaced then with their two voices closely entwined.  The Largo sostenuto gave violist Traian Boală and cellist Zsolt Török the opportunity to engage in a tender duet, a restrained melody which was delicately ornamented; when the violins took over, the cello’s pianissimo murmurings provided a touch of quiet drama.  Much was made of dynamic contrasts: the forte chords were short and dry, the pianissimo echoes a low whisper.  The final cadence vanished exquisitely but there was no time to reflect on its beauty, for the Presto whirled off immediately, the first violin’s theme dancing lightly supported by tip-toeing chords below.  After the subtle opening, there was more robustness, the cello’s insistent repeating notes and pedals creating a firm impetus.  The fragmentations of the rondo theme in the final bars were performed with such precision and style that, rather than leaving us wondering ‘has it finished?’, they seemed the natural way for the work to conclude.

If the Arcadia strove for subtlety and elegance in Haydn’s quartet, the Meccore’s performance of Beethoven’s String Quartet in F, Op.18 No.1 was all about spontaneity and driving energy; exciting contrasts rather than polished continuities.  The articulation of the opening theme of the Allegro con brio was full of attack, and the vibrancy was enhanced by striking dynamic contrasts.  The Meccore performed standing, with cellist Karol Marianowski seated on a raised platform, and this lent an added sense of drama and rhetoric.  It also made it possible for viola player Michal Bryla to ensure that his melodies spoke clearly to the Hall, and his warm sound was rich and full.  However, I occasionally felt, as he turned his instrument outwards, that this sometimes placed undue emphasis on communicating to us, at the expense of conversing with the others.

There was much to admire, though, including agile finger-work from leader Wojciech Koprowski and attractive phrasing from cellist Karol Marianowski.  The development section of the first movement was theatrical and exciting: a downwards torrent, followed by silence, then imitative fury.  And, the changing tone colour enhanced the sense of narrative, by turn steely then gentle, focused then glassy.  The quiet triplet quavers which commence the Adagio pulsed tensely and passionately, above which Koprowski’s melody floated with cool beauty.  As the figuration gradually increased, the semiquavers spilled fluently between the voices; crescendos culminated in surprisingly forceful outbursts, then immediately retreated.  The effect was operatic in intensity.

The Scherzo was impetuous, its airy lightness bewitching.  Strong sforzandi anticipated the boisterousness of the Trio.  In the latter, the bouncing octaves which passed between the viola and cello triggered a torrent of running quavers from Koprowski which unfolded in a virtuosic, mad whirl.  There was no let-up of the restless exhilaration in the final Allegro.  The first violin’s descending semiquaver triplets slithered silkily and Bryla answered with equally defined lucidity.  The individual voices conversed articulately in the imitative episodes while the quieter passages possessed a poised tranquillity.  Accents were incisive but well-judged; however much ‘bite’ was given to individual motifs, the phrases retained their essential lyricism.

Having created two such different ‘worlds’ – the courtly grace of the eighteenth century and the unsettling agitation of Romanticism – the question was, how would the Arcadia and Meccore Quartets marry them when they joined forces in Mendelssohn’s Octet in E-flat major, Op.20?  The answer was that they would retain elements of both, finding both Classical grace and Romantic turbulence in Mendelssohn’s gloriously tuneful masterpiece.  Ana Török had no problem commanding the vibrant ensemble; throughout the work, Török never once forced her sound yet the first violin’s thematic assertions sang clearly above the busy textures.  Koprowski took the fourth violin part and made much of the thematic role that Mendelssohn gives to this inner voice.

The composer modifies the opening Allegro moderato, ‘ma con fuoco’, and this performance was characterised by tremendous vigour, driven by hugely energised cello playing from Török and Marianowski (the latter played the first cello part), their rising and falling arpeggio quavers spurring the upper voices, their pizzicatos pointed and resonant.  The darkness of the development section was emphasised by a pressing urgency and poignant dynamic retreats, creating a mood of troubled pathos.  As the texture thinned, the various pairs of voices became increasingly veiled, until the syncopations in the bass injected fresh impetus and excitement.  The closing episode surprised in its swift transformation of the quiet mystery of the cellos’ descending chromatic minims, to the celebratory brightness of the final, aspiring thematic reprise.

The Andante initially presented a dry, wintery landscape, with the violas and cellos contributing much to the overall mood of unease and trepidation.  With the relaxation which comes with the arrival at the relative major key, the falling semiquaver scales sparkled with the clarity of a starry night sky; gradually the tone was enriched, suggesting the coming of the morning sun.  The ensemble was impressive in the Scherzo and the perfectly controlled dynamics ensured that thematic interjections from the middle voices carried through the busy staccatos.  Tiny swells warmed the prevailing hush, creating expectancy and vitality.

The Presto was a furious flurry of fugal exclamations – at times a little rough-hewn but tremendously invigorating; and, after the thunderous opening there was calm and freshness in the more lucid imitative passages.  The various subjects were individuated and well defined, although I would have liked the strong leaping minims which initiate the quaver runs to have been even more legato and melodious.  But the players demonstrated great stamina, concentration and commitment, and it was impossible not to smile and luxuriate in such wonderful music and music-making.

The concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3. Those who are able to access the BBC iPLayer can listen by clicking here.

Claire Seymour

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