Switzerland Chopin, Szymanowski: Carillon Quartet, Yoshiko Iwai (piano), Kleiner Saal, Tonhalle Zurich, 6.12.2015. (RP)
Chopin: Piano Trio in G minor, Op. 8
Szymanowski: String Quartet No. 2, Op. 56
Frederic Chopin (1810-1839) is the most famous of Polish musicians. He was the prototype of a Romantic hero, with flowing hair and an unconventional lifestyle. His body may be buried in Paris, but his heart rests in Warsaw. As he died young, that image of the free-spirited musician is indelibly engraved in the mind’s eye for posterity. Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937) would take up Chopin’s mantle, both as a composer and pianist in the early 20th century. He too marched to the beat of a different drum in his personal life, was just as patriotic as Chopin, and was similarly fated to die abroad, in Switzerland. His remains rest in Krakow, in a crypt alongside those of many other illustrious Poles. Unlike Chopin, he did not achieve worldwide fame and name recognition. Perhaps because in just a few short years, the Poland that he knew would be no more.
The Piano Trio is Chopin’s only composition for the violin, composed when he was 19 years old. Unsurprisingly, the piano plays a dominant role throughout; only in the third movement, the Adagio sostenuto, do the violin and cello really gain equal status. Whether it was in the dramatic piano introduction to the first movement, Allegro con fuoco, or the delicate final notes of the third that segued seamlessly into the forte, almost violent opening of the Finale, the innate gracefulness, coupled with the intensity of pianist Yoshiko Iwai’s playing, riveted one’s attention throughout. Violinist Elisabeth Bundies and cellist Christian Proske rounded out the trio, and were their most lyrical and expressive in the Adagio, but were constrained to supporting roles for the most part.
The intense, churning sounds that immediately lead into a spare melody played an octave apart by the violin and cello, which opens Karol Szymanowski’s Second String Quartet, showed what the passage of a century had done to transform Polish, indeed all of Western, classical music. Szymanowski may have been influenced by Chopin, and likewise looked to Polish folk songs and dances for inspiration, but for most listeners there would be little to link the two. Written as an entry for the Philadelphia Musical Fund Society’s chamber work competition in 1927 (he lost to Bela Bartok and Alfred Casella), the composer expressed qualms as to the piece’s merits. However, its taut, ethereal melodies, combined with exotic, sophisticated harmonies and exciting percussive effects, have earned it a place in the repertoire.
The complete Carillon Quartet was on stage for the Szymanowski, with Bundies and Proske joined by first violinist Andreas Janke and violist Katja Fuchs. The work veers from long, sustained melodies to surging, almost violent, rhythmically charged passages. Janke spun those melodies into beautiful, shimmering threads of sound. Together, the ensemble was explosive in the jagged, forceful outbursts that punctuate the work. The final Lento begins with a fugue, with the theme first played in the viola, followed by the cello, one of the few opportunities to clearly hear the individual playing of these two fine players who are otherwise enmeshed in Szymanowski’s complex sonorities. The piece ends with loud, slashing chords, concluding the concert as dramatically as it began.