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S & H Concert Review

Suk, Smetana, Janáček Janáček Quartet. Wigmore Hall, 1pm, Monday, June 14th, 2004 (CC)


So to the final concert in this season’s Wigmore Radio 3 Lunchtime series. The Hall was being shut down at 2.30pm (until October 2004, ed), so it was appropriate that the series and the season should end on a high.

The Janáček Quartet (Miloš Vacek, Vítĕzslav Zavadilík, violins; Ladislav Kyselák, viola; Břetislav Vybíral, cello) has a distinguished history. It was founded in 1947 and there have been remarkably few changes of personnel in that time. It has only ever had two violists and two cellists, the present two being pupils of their predecessors. An all-Czech programme meant that there should be plenty to savour – as was, indeed, the case.

The first work was by Josef Suk (who married Dvořák’s daughter Otilie). The short (six-minute) Meditation on an Old Czech Hymn ‘St Wenceslas’, for string quartet or string orchestra was written in 1914 and suited the ensemble perfectly. The Janáček Quartet’s sound is characteristic of the region, being very warm-toned, and that fitted perfectly with Suk’s nostalgia-laden work where delicacy is the watchword. Very special.

Smetana’s Second Quartet (D minor, 1882/3) is a remarkably visionary work, more overtly modern in outlook than one might expect from this composer – witness the frequent changes of tempo in the first movement. All this is a direct result of Smetana’s illness at the time (he was to die not too long afterwards). The Janáček Quartet proved that they are capable of stern, strong statements without breaking the warmth of their tone, and they really seemed to enjoy the harmonic arrivals. The Quartet seemed to detect that there is a joy buried somewhere deep below the surface, trying desperately (and failing) to get out – this was aurally evident in both first and last movement. In between came a foot-tapping Polka, out of which an Andante cantabile blossomed forth, and a third movement during which the performance seemed to light up, moving from the excellent to the transcendent. The sense of flow and inevitability was remarkable.

Finally, Janáček’s Second Quartet of 1928, the so-called ‘Intimate Letters’ (because of his love for the much younger Kamila Stösslová). It is a fearsomely difficult work, something the Janáček Quartet seemed to feed off. This was truly the climax of this remarkable concert – Janáček’s characteristic ostinati seemed as natural as breathing to the players, lending a hyper-intensity to the flow. Perhaps most memorable was the heart-breaking desolation that seemed so much a part of this performance, a sense of sadness inextricably linked to a feeling of hopelessness. Contrasts were stark, so that the rollicking opening to the finale stood in dark juxtaposition to the black episodes. A remarkable close to a remarkable concert that reminded us not only of the magnificence of the music from the Czech lands, but of the supreme excellence of their players.

A wonderful way to close a season that has included many memorable concerts.

Colin Clarke


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