United Kingdom Szymanowski, Sibelius: Meccore Quartet [Jarosław Nadrzycki & Wojciech Koprowski (violins), Michał Bryèa (viola), Karol Marianowski (cello)], Wigmore Hall London 20.11.2017. (CS)
Szymanowski – String Quartet No.1 in C Op.37
Sibelius – String Quartet in D minor Op.56 (Voces intimae)
Karol Szymanowski and Jean Sibelius don’t at first seem obvious bedfellows. For their 2015 debut CD, the Meccore Quartet paired their Polish compatriot’s two string quartets with Debussy’s G minor Quartet, thereby elucidating Szymanowski’s own compositional evolution, as – during the 1910s – he added the newly discovered harmonies and textures of French musical impressionism to his earlier ardent absorption of the German Romanticism of Wagner and Strauss.
However, this lunchtime recital at the Wigmore Hall revealed stronger and more numerous affinities between the Pole and the Finn than one might have anticipated: a sound-world dipping adventurously and idiosyncratically into modernist waters in tandem with upwellings of Romantic feeling; a folky directness, at times, which counters sophisticated formal and stylistic assimilation; and, not least, profound, contemplative slow movements which are the emotional fulcrum of each quartet.
Indeed, the Meccore Quartet’s performance seemed to be underpinned by masterful control of contrasts, both musical and emotional. Registers, timbres and textures juxtaposed extremes and dissimilarities, just as the Meccore Quartet balanced strong individual voices with unanimous expressive instinct and understanding; refinement and poise with freedom and exuberance; and an energy bordering sometimes on ferociousness with serenity and stillness.
There are innate contradictions and tensions within Szymanowski’s First String Quartet and they imbue the music with an edgy dynamism. Freshness and novelty seem to agitate the formal boundaries of the genre, just as the fecundity of invention and density of material seem too rich to be accommodated by just four players. Such divergence and diversity were embodied in the first bars of the Lento assai, in which Jarosław Nadrzycki’s perfectly pitched high G emerged from the silence like a thread of light to be joined by double-stopped, fifth-based parallel motion below, creating a sense of expansiveness and composure. But, the equanimity did not last long: even before the short, slow introduction was over, melodic wavering, trills and syncopations carried us into the Allegro moderato which shimmered and shook with restless tremolandos and oscillations.
The Meccore impressed upon the ear the astonishing density of Szymanowski’s detail through the paradoxical transparency of their delivery. And, however tense and acerbic the dissonances, the string sound retained a core of beauty, teasing lyrical exchanges between the voices – coloured by lovely slithering chromatic triplets – evoking a Straussian Romanticism. There was astonishing subtlety and pinpoint precision, but also a beguiling cantabile line enriched by suave portamento. At the close, the movement welled over into a free-wheeling, contrary motion scale; the concluding plagal cadence and affirmative pizzicato seemed at once both an exhausted release and an ironic quip.
Szymanowski’s Andantino semplice (in modo d’una canzone) began with sweetly blended tone, despite the harmonic disturbances; the long, reaching lyrical lines seemed to be grasping for something ineffable – self-generating and extending infinitely and unceasingly. Nadrzycki and violist Michał Bryèa duetted with elegant expressivity around Wojciech Koprowski’s delicate trills, while cellist Karol Marianowski murmured and nudged in the nether regions. There was no real sense of ‘pulse’, and a delicate pianissimo prevailed, but the music carried itself forward persuasively and bewitchingly. The muted tremulousness of the Lento assai which ends the movement was soft and husky as the bows of the lower strings drifted dreamily over the fingerboard and Nadrzycki’s G-string melody – finely, firmly etched – gradually retreated to whispered harmonics.
The Vivace – Scherzando all burlesca was a pounding, palpitating dance, which pitted the grotesque against the graceful. Pizzicato chords were flung flamboyantly – but always with exactitude – across the quartet; the metre was incessantly destabilised by rhythmic displacement and argument. But, after the hectic heatedness there was suddenly ‘nothing’ – just a violin E string, reiterating the movement’s prevailing rhythmic motif, a gruff cello, some pinging pizzicato crotchets … the shards and fragments ‘held together’ by a drone bass C. The Meccore conjured a Stravinskian exuberance and humour – but at the pithy close, it was of the blackest kind.
There was brooding sparseness at the start of Sibelius’s String Quartet, but Nadrzycki and Marianowski were not afraid to imbue their exchanges in the introductory Andante with portamento enriching, and such colour propelled the melodic fragments into a briskly unfolding first movement – more Allegro than molto moderato (indeed a little more circumspection might have aided the intonation which, uncharacteristically, took a little time to settle). As in Szymanowski’s quartet there was a sense of roving invention and exploration, as the scalic motion led us harmonically far and wide; but, the lines wound back on themselves, and as four voices shrank to three and then to two, we were reminded of the ‘intimacy’ of the work’s title (taken from an ascription above the third movement). The Meccore conjured both shared secrets and a private introspection. The ensemble pianissimo lured the ear into intimate realms, but at the end of the movement the chordal homophony shook off any lingering confidentiality with a pronouncement of great rhetoric and resonance.
We did not quite tumble attaca into the Vivace scherzo but once the murmuring figurations had commenced we took off with breezy insouciance, flying fleetly through the buzzing semiquavers which were enlivened by dotted-rhythm snatches. It felt as if Mendelssohn had collided with Stravinsky, particularly when the faery rhythms and textures acquired a weighty stamp.
The melodic eloquence of the Adagio di molto was matched by the drama created by the emotive power of the Meccore Quartet’s fluctuation between rich harmony and unison in the ensemble homophony. The individual lines seemed to implore and yearn, forever frustrated in their search for fulfilment; the tone, somehow, was both shimmery and glossy, and there was a reaching for Straussian jouissance and transfiguration in the closing sections. In the final bars, insistently but tactfully, Marianowski repeatedly posed an intransigent question which was finally resolved, and relieved, by consonance and unity.
Nadrzycki largely ignored the ‘dots’ (the marked articulation, admittedly with lines too, in the score) and Sibelius’s ‘ma pesante’ instruction at the start of the Allegretto, making the violin’s melody sing with a heartfelt passion which spun off into scalic triplet swirls in the middle voices, as first violin and cello conversed in elegant arcs above and below. The combination of lyrical poise and perpetual movement – of stylishness and slithery impetus – was striking, and the Meccore’s collective utterances acquired ever greater weight and equality of voice, culminating in the shared declarations of the final sombre phrase. The final Allegro flashed by, a dervish-like tarantella – kicked off by Bryèa’s edgy, virtuosic scalic sparks – that at times seemed to threaten to become a jazz-like riff!
There was never any danger that the skidding was free-wheeling or would come off the rails though. This was a wonderfully exciting lunchtime concert: perceptive, provocative and ultimately, undoubtedly, unanimously positive in spirit.