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S & H Recital Review

Janacek String Quartet No 1, 'The Kreutzer Sonata'; Quartet No 2, 'Intimate Letters' Skampa Quartet (Pavel Fischer, violin; Jana Lukasova, violin; Radim Sedmidubsky, viola; Peter Jarusek, cello), Wigmore Hall, Saturday 12 January 2002, (SD)

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.

Sarah Dunlop

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