Wigmore Mondays: Meccore String Quartet – Szymanowski & Sibelius

Meccore String Quartet (above – Jarosław Nadrzycki, Wojciech Koprowski (violins), Michał Bryła (viola), Karol Marianowski (cello)

Szymanowski String Quartet no.1 in C major, Op.37 (1917)
Sibelius String Quartet in D minor, Op.56 ‘Voces intimae’ (1909)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 20 November 2017

Written by Ben Hogwood

The broadcast can be heard on the BBC iPlayer by clicking here

Szymanowski’s two String Quartets took a while to establish themselves in the string quartet repertory, but certainly not on grounds of quality. The first anticipates the composer’s biggest stage work, King Roger, and has music of great depth with a relatively exotic harmonic language.

Sibelius wrote his only published string quartet – there are three other unpublished works – at his new home of Ainola, where he moved with his wife in 1903. At this point the composer was suffering from the effects of alcoholism and debt, and needed to move away from Helsinki and temptation. Ultimately this did not provide full relief, but he was at least able to move on with composition, and the Symphony no.3, written just before the quartet, offers more optimism. The quartet however is dark and unforgiving.

Follow the music

The times used relate to the broadcast link above.

Szymanowski String Quartet no.1 in C major, Op.37 (from 1:51) (17 minutes)

At 1:51 the quartet begins as though in a time warp, the soft harmonies in a chorale from the four instruments harking back to a much earlier time. Gradually the music establishes its rich harmonies, helped by added notes from the instruments using double stopping (playing more than one note at once), which gives added density to the music.

The added note harmonies are a big part of the composer’s newer style, where he does still on occasion imitate Debussy but where he now has one foot planted relatively firmly in the explorer’s camp. The music goes through some unexpected harmonic shifts towards the end, but then from 9:27 feels on firm grounds once more with the luxurious beginning to the slow movement.

This features soaring melodies from the first violin and higher playing from the rest of the instruments towards the end, where the listener feels suspended in the air.

A different air altogether hangs in the third movement (15:07) where the music is quick, urgent and full of smaller phrases passed between the instruments. At 17:19 a dance section gives cut and thrust, before the quartet wraps up with surprising haste.

Sibelius String Quartet in D minor, Op.56 ‘Voces intimae’ (from 21:24) (28 minutes)

The theme from the violin (21:24), answered by the cello, is the melodic material on which the first movement is based. The phrases are restless, passed between the instruments and often overlapping with little pause for breath. There is a sense of the wide open countryside in which Sibelius now finds himself, but also of the dark days. This comes to a head around 26:48, a sparse cadence played by the quartet, before they move on to the second movement with flitting motifs from each instruments, creating a vision of circling birds.

The slow movement (29:36, marked Adagio di molto) is the centre of the work both emotionally and musically, deeply emotional but also offering resolution. Here the quartet are closely together, and the main theme, which comes back several times, has a deep yearning.

From 39:00 the fourth movement begins, and here the quartet digs in as though searching for strength and resolve. Gradually the individual lines become restless again, the melodies increasingly fractured, and the textures are heavy. Leading on from this is an even faster movement (44:35), where the instruments become even more reckless and desperation sets in (especially from 46:17). There are fleeting glimpses of folk melodies but the momentum carries all before it to a dazzling flurry of semiquavers at the end.

Thoughts on the concert

A powerful concert from the Meccore String Quartet. Their Syzmanowski felt utterly authentic, played with style and feeling, and with the quartet full in voice. They took a standing position for the concert (except the cellist of course) and this suited their freedom of expression.

The quartet tended to take the fast music at daringly fast tempi, especially in the Sibelius, where the second and fifth movements seemed to be gone in a flash of breakneck speed. Despite the technical brilliance this did mean a few musical statements were swept up in the sheer momentum of it all. However the quartet were more measured for the slow movement, where emotion was concentrated and intonation wonderfully secure. There was a feeling throughout that the interpretations from the quartet were singular in voice, and watching them in person made the experience much more meaningful.

As a substantial encore it was nice to hear the second movement (a Romanze) from Grieg‘s String Quartet in G minor, Op.27 (51:00), which the quartet have recently recorded, and which here provided a reminder of the melodic gifts of the Norwegian composer, whose music seems to have fallen off the radar a little bit of late. The cello is particularly beautiful in its melody here.

Further listening and reading

Here is the first movement of the Grieg String Quartet, performed by the Meccore String Quartet live from the Polish Radio in 2015.

For a further taster of their Szymanowski, here is the third movement of the String Quartet no.2, part of a disc of the composer’s quartets recently released on Warner Classics:

Meanwhile for further listening on Spotify, in the absence of the Meccore versions, here are the Emerson String Quartet in a winning combination of the Sibelius and Grieg Quartets, with a little Nielsen for good measure:

Meanwhile both Szymanowski Quartets can be found here, in a version from the Goldner String Quartet:

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