S&H Concert Review

Skampa String Quartet Beethoven Op 18/2; Prokofiev No. 2, Op. 92; Franck Piano Quintet with Kathryn Stott (piano) Wigmore Hall, 11 November 2000

Hearing the Skampa Quartet live at last (they were artists-in-residence at Wigmore Hall from 1994-1999) fully vindicated the high praise for their CDs. It has only latterly become well recognised that the Op. 18 quartets are major achievements in their own right, not just preparatory practice for the great middle and late masterpieces to follow. Countless times though the Skampas must have played it, there was a unanimous 'breathing' of the music which saved it from any suspicion of routine. Importantly, throughout the evening, one sensed that long acquaintance with the Wigmore Hall had helped them to find the exactly right balance for its acoustics - crisp articulation with plenty of air, so that everything was clear as crystal, yet cushioned against dryness by a bloom supplied by the auditorium itself.

This became even more important for the less well-known (why so?) Prokofiev and the more problematic Franck. The Prokofiev 2nd (1942) is a real original, conceived to please his Soviet masters whilst evacuated in 1941 to the Caucusus, where he completed that year half of War & Peace and most of this quartet. He deliberately worked with Kabardinian folk music, combining the primitive tunes with sonata-form development. The result, spiced with gently abrasive witticisms, is uniquely piquant and, as he had hoped, always 'interesting'. It can sound dry and academic & the right balance in Prokofiev can be elusive; this performance was perfection.

César Franck's quintet of 1879 is no longer often played - its dedicatee Saint Saens caused a scandal by walking off stage to signal his disapproval, immediately after he had played the last note of the piano part at the first performance. It is extravagantly romantic and builds with cyclical links, and by chains of modulating repetition, bringing incongruously to mind some modern minimalist procedures and the insistent repetitions of melodic fragments in pop tunes. There is a danger that the players can get louder and louder and stop listening to each other. This was completely averted here, and Kathryn Stott found a perfect equilibrium with her partners, adjusting between foreground and background with consummate ease and unobtrusive skill. It was a great performance, but still reminded me why I had tended to avoid it in the past; Stott with the Skampas will be a memory to savour which will serve me for a long time ahead.

Peter Grahame Woolf

The Skampa String Quartet's new release of Beethoven Op 127 & 135 is a joy in its refinement and technical excellence (both the players' and the recording) and it should take a high place in the highly competitive comparison stakes (Supraphon SU 3464-2 131).

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