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Seen and Heard Recital Review


Dvorák, Janácek Skampa Quartet, Wigmore Hall, 1pm, Monday, October 18th, 2004 (CC)


The youthful zeal of the Skampa Quartet is infectious. They even play standing up (with the obvious exception of the cellist), something that seems to add a certain dynamism to the event. Founded in 1989 at the Prague Academy, here they presented two works from their homeland.


Dvorák’s ‘American’ Quartet, (No. 12 in F, Op. 95/B179), brought out the best from this ensemble. In both this work and the Janácek, the Skampa Quartet’s familiarity with the music was matched by a real sense of spur-of-the-moment spontaneity.


Both works seem to foreground the violist, so it is good that the Skampa Quartet has such a fine exponent of the instrument in Radin Sedmidubský. For example, he is given the main theme of the first movement of the Dvorák. Here it came across with real warmth. The quartet worked as a single entity also, though, with superbly graded diminuendi and a corporate decision not to underlay the dramatic in Dvorák’s music. The composer’s use of imitative counterpoint revealed absolute equality in all four parts. These contrasts were evident also in the Lento, which contrasted the outgoing with lovely, velvety interior pianissimi. Moments of great charm were present also, though (especially in the finale). Only in the third movement did the juxtaposition of extreme dynamics lead to an abrasive sound quality that was alien to Dvorák’s music.


Janácek’s Second Quartet is subtitled ‘Intimate Letters’. This very quartet in this very hall impressed Sarah Dunlop on this site in 2002, and their belief in Janácek’s often disturbing utterances shone through every note. The very opening was fascinating, presenting a mix of late-Beethoven angst (complete with trills which buzzed with an inner vibrancy all of their own) and a dramatic side that was immediately redolent of Janácek opera. The Skampa Quartet understood this is music of unashamed juxtaposition, more often than not the music of a disturbed mind (indeed, the subtitle derives from the composer’s famous love letters to a girl much younger than himself, Kamila Stosslová). The dense, angst-ridden textures of the Adagio second movement and the ghostly, sighing gestures of the third attested viscerally to Janácek’s torment. Thus it seemed inevitable that the dance-like intentions of the finale were to be scuppered by disjunct lines of thought and relentless repetitions of small musical fragments. It would be wrong to say that one ‘enjoyed’ this performance (unless there’s an element of masochism there). The music is disturbing, and the Skampa Quartet was in no mood to blunt its message.


A superb concert.


Colin Clarke


The Skampa Quartet has recorded the Janacek Quartets (short measure as there is no coupling) on Supraphon SU3486-2.


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