The Skampas may have been stand-ins for the Lindsays,
but there was nothing last minute about their performance, which combined
consummate skill and musicianship with a delightfully unstuffy delivery.
From the clean, incisive opening of the 'Kreutzer Sonata' Quartet to
its extraordinarily harrowing finale (which portrays the eventual killing
of the woman of Tolstoy's novel by her jealous husband), their playing
had passion and control in equal measure, with well-matched voices and
impeccable ensemble. Second fiddle, Jana Lukasova, had a notably dark,
viola-like tone which I momentarily confused with the viola at the start
because of the quartet's unorthodox seating layout.
A short break followed the enthusiastic applause for
the First Quartet, and just as the chat was building up the Skampas
re-entered, playing an arrangement of a traditional Czech folksong.
They remained standing throughout the short song, first improvising
and then breaking into song, in Czech, near the end. Then the leader
grasped the microphone and proceeded to explain, illustrated with playing,
how Janacek quoted directly from this folksong's first line in the opening
salvo of the Quartet, enhancing the motif's emotional impact by use
of the 7th chord.
The first, Bohemian, folk song, was followed by a Moravian
one in markedly different style to its Bohemian cousin, its Eastern
origins plain to hear in its strongly modal feel and irregular metre.
The Skampas demonstrated the unmistakable Moravian influence in both
of Janacek's surviving quartets, and especially the recurring 4th in
the finale of No 1. Lecture over, they let their hair down again, playing
a string of songs 'as if we were in Moravia in a wine cellar'. Anxious
to prolong the mood during the interval, I headed straight for the bar.
Quartet No 2, 'Intimate Letters', inspired by Janacek's
relationship to Kamila Stosslova, was as idiomatic as No 1, and the
players achieved the huge dramatic contrasts Janacek indicated in order
to convey his strongly emotional experience, for example between the
work's strident opening declaration and the eerie sul ponticello
reply. The second violin produced an exceptionally sweet, floated tone
in the Andante's lyrical second subject, while the viola's subsequent,
slightly menacing solo was extremely well projected, and its flotando
tone before the coda very quiet yet penetrating. The cello sang out
cantabile appassionato at the beginning of the Adagio, and after
the razor-sharp finale even their folksong encores seemed, this time,
a bit of an anti-climax.
A performance difficult to fault, then, and a hugely
enjoyable evening in a refreshing format which other quartets might
do well to imitate.