Polish quartet makes fine debut
By James Bash
The Szymanowski Quartet made an impressive Oregon Bach Festival debut on Thursday at the Soreng Theatre in the Hult Center.
Founded in Warsaw, Poland, in 1995 and named after Polish composer Karol Szymanowski, the foursome seemed to play with their eyes closed half of the time. Cellist Marcin Sieniawski, in particular, looked as if he had memorized every note. The resulting effect of this mind meld was a spellbinding, passionate and dynamic performance of difficult chamber works by Szymanowski, W.A. Mozart and Franz Schubert.
The first piece was Mozart's String Quartet in F Major, which he wrote a year before his death in 1791. At this time, Mozart's music had gone out of favor with the fickle Viennese, and his wife was seriously ill. His acute financial situation forced him to sell three of the six string quartets he had intended to compose for Prussia's King Friedrich Wilhelm II, who was a solid amateur cellist. By his own account, Mozart received "a ridiculously small sum" for the quartets.
Led by first violinist Andrey Bielow, the Szymanowski Quartet produced a wonderful singing sound that they sustained throughout Mozart's piece. The ensemble easily brought out the playful themes in the first movement, many of which are punctuated by dramatic pauses. The group also excelled with the tender and noble themes of the second movement and thoroughly enjoyed the complexities of the final two movements, including the stormy passages that threatened the sunny outcome.
The ensemble followed Mozart with a chamber piece by Szymanowski (1882-1937). Suffering from depression and a dependence on alcohol and nicotine, Szymanowski's health was always shaky. Yet he wrote compelling music with a unique voice, and he composed his String Quartet No. 2 a decade before he succumbed to tuberculosis at age 54.
The quartet dove into Szymanowski's atmospheric music without hesitation. In fact, it almost seemed as if they could breathe this piece. All of its turns and twists, stops and starts, were second nature to them. For example, in the first movement, second violinist Grzegorz Kotow and violist Vladimir Mykitka enhanced the tension and nervousness with an underlying tremolo, while Bielow explored lyrical passages and Sieniawski alternated between the two. Later, the music seemed to settle into a sea of tranquility before all hell broke loose. The ending, with its fierce tone and aggressiveness, made me wonder if it reflected the inner turmoil of the composer or if he was making a broader statement.
After intermission, the quartet performed Schubert's String Quartet in G Major, which he wrote a couple years before he died in 1828 at the age of 31. In this work, Schubert used a conflict between major and minor thirds to build tension until everything is resolved at the end in a sublime G major.
The Szymanowski Quartet responded to this music by digging deeper and deeper, mining a range of expression and artistry to convey Schubert's beautiful yet complicated music. They played thrilling tremolos. Their crescendos and decrescendos were seamless. They had complete command of the tempo changes, and they always maintained a wonderful sound.
Enthusiastic and sustained applause brought the ensemble back for an encore - a soothing piece called "Melody" by a Ukrainian composer whose name I didn't catch.
James Bash lives in Portland and writes for the Willamette Week, The Columbian, The Register-Guard and many other publications.