United Kingdom Smetana, Janáček: Škampa String Quartet (Helena Jiřikovská, Aděla Štajnochrová [violins], Radím Sedmidubský [viola], Lukáš Polák [cello]). LSO St Luke’s, London, 4.2.2016 (CC)
Smetana: String Quartet No. 1 in E minor, “From my Life”
Janáček: String Quartet No. 1, “Kreutzer Sonata”
There was a significant, and sad, change from the originally-advertised performers. Due to illness of the spouse of the Pavel Haas Quartet’s viola player, the Škampa Quartet stood in at short notice for this lunchtime of core Czech string quartet repertoire. It was a classy substitution though: both quartets stand at the vanguard of modern Czech chamber performance.
Smetana’s First Quartet is subtitled “From my Life” and dates from 1876. His deafness encroaching, Smetana felt moved to provide what he described as a “tone picture” of his life. Certainly it comprises one of the composer’s most interior and heartfelt statements. The Škampa Quartet, who opted for the two violins to the left and the viola on the outside, enabling the cello to project directly at the audience, made a beautiful sound, but one was aware of a certain dryness in the acoustic (despite this venue being a converted church). The viola has a lot to do in this piece, and Radím Sedmidubský’s solos were uniformly excellent both in terms of projection and of expression. The long exchanges between instruments were expertly judged by all members of the quartet, while cellist Lukáš Polák maintained astonishing definition. Pianissimi from the full quartet were masterful. Most of all though, it was the passion of the first movement, Allegro vivo appassionata, that impressed.
The two violins, Helena Jiřikovská and Aděla Štajnochrová, excelled in the second movement’s central section; while Sedmidubský’s viola once more caught the right tone (rustic, this time) for the principal theme. It was Polák’s resonant cello that made the Largo sostenuto so special; Jiřikovská’s smoky, long lines matched his intensity. Finally, a joyous second violin contribution from Aděla Štajnochrová put into relief the visceral musical representation of the composer’s tinnitus (from first violin Helena Jiřikovská). Dramatic and turbulent, and including charged silence, this was a powerful performance.
As was the Škampa’s view of Janáček’s First Quartet (the “Kreutzer Sonata”; inspired by Tolstoy’s story of adultery, and quoting Beethoven’s Violin Sonata of that nickname). This is a wonderfully constructed piece, one of which the Škampa had the full measure. Unremitting in the rawness of some of the textures, yet astonishingly tender in the quiet opening, hyper-intense at times – the cello’s bold lines in the first movement, for example – this performance was, at times, utterly harrowing. The second movement is a sort of deconstructed, somewhat mangled Polka, which seems to inspire the mangled, scratchy, disturbing viola interjections of the third. The final movement highlights the first violin in a reflection of the unhappiness of the heroine of Tolstoy’s story; Jiřikovská was again outstanding.
This was an amazing event, and one that will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 at 1pm UK time on Tuesday March 15. It’s worthwhile noting that the Škampa Quartet returns on February 11 lunchtime to the same venue for a programme of Suk (Meditation on the Old Czech Hymn, “St Wenceslas”), Janáček (Quartet No. 2) and Pavel Fischer (Quartet No. 1, “Morava).