Skampa Quartet at the Wigmore Hall – Writing home

Writing Home – the Skampa Quartet and Krzysztof Chorzelski at the Wigmore Hall


Skampa Quartet (Helena Jiříkovská and Adéla Štajnochrová (violins), Radim Sedmidubský (viola) and Lukáš Polák (cello), with Krzysztof Chorzelski (viola) – Wigmore Hall, London, live on BBC Radio 3, 8 June 2015

Listening link (opens in a new window):

on the iPlayer until 7 July


In case you cannot hear the broadcast, I have put together a Spotify playlist of most of the music in this concert, including recordings the artists have made where possible. The playlist can be found here:

What’s the music?

Suk: Meditation on an Old Czech Hymn ‘St Wenceslas’ Op 35a (1914) (6 minutes)

Pavel Fischer: String Quartet No 3 ‘Mad Piper’ (16 minutes)

Dvořák String Quintet in E flat major (1893) (34 minutes)

What about the music?

After the recent successes of Steven Isserlis and friends in playing Czech chamber music, the Wigmore Hall welcomed back the Skampa Quartet to explore more of the same. Few thrills in classical music beat Czech musicians enjoying the melodies and rhythms of their home country, and here the Skampa have picked a very satisfying program.

First up are the Meditations on an Old Czech Hymn ‘St Wenceslas’, written by Dvořák’s son-in-law Josef Suk, himself an accomplished composer of much orchestral music. This piece was written as World War I began, providing a boost to national morale in either of its versions, for string quartet or for string orchestra.

Dvořák himself was abroad when writing his third published String Quintet in E flat major, completed at Spillville in Iowa in the space of five weeks. This was the same place in Iowa where he wrote the celebrated American string quartet – and for the work that occupies Op.97 in his published catalogue (the ‘American’ is 96) he simply adds a second viola.

In the middle of the concert lies the third quartet of Pavel Fischer, a founder member and first violinist of the Skampa Quartet. Fischer has become interested in combining chamber and world music, as he has done here with a depiction of different pipers – Scottish (Mad Piper, a depiction of Piper Bill, who played while under fire during the D-day landing at Normandy) and Bulgarian (Sad Piper).

Performance verdict

The Skampa Quartet have long been one of the very best of their kind, and in Czech music there are few ensembles to equal them. This performance reminds us why, from the deeply soulful Suk to the strong folk flavours of the Pavel Fischer piece, which works really well in this performance – both tuneful and obviously ‘outdoors’.

The jewel in the crown, though, is the Dvořák, which receives an ideal performance here, its combination of American and Bohemian flavours perfectly blended.

What should I listen out for?


1:54 – We first hear a solemn intonation of the hymn from the quartet, given with very little vibrato, reminding us that the original hymn dates from around the twelfth century. Gradually Suk imposes his thoughts on the music as it gradually gains weight to a climactic point around 4:00, making a powerful impact. Then from around 6:00 there is heavier, gritty music, the full quartet digging their bows into the strings, then the first violin reaching for the heights. Then the music subsides, concluding softly at 8:34.

Pavel Fischer

11:10 The first movement (Mad Piper) shows how well the sonorities of a string quartet lead themselves to depictions of a bagpiper. The musical language is tonal, leading to an eloquent tune from the viola at 13:15, beautifully inflected here.

17:09 The second movement (Carpathian) begins with a quick pizzicato (plucked) line from the cello that sounds a bit like a walking bass, supporting a rough-shod and folky violin tune. This becomes more vigorous by turn.

18:56 The third movement (Sad Piper) gives its principal melody to the viola again, making a uniquely downcast and bird-like call.

22:28 The distinctive snap of the bow being hit on the string acts as a percussive beat to this final movement, called Ursari. Both violins duet in the distinctive melodies, which have a ‘knees-up’ quality, before the frenzied cello comes in, and then the action passes to the viola. At 24:34 a striking passage in the music takes us to a relatively ‘straight’ C major – but there is a jaunty finish in store from the ensemble at 26:50.


29:30 Dvořák has the uncanny knack of taking his listener outside with almost the first note of any of his American works, and he does so once again here, with the wide open textures and slightly plaintive melody – until the main theme makes itself fully known at 30:46, a firm and almost defiant tune. At 31:15 this is countered by a more obviously American tune on the viola.

A lot of these tunes use the pentatonic scale, which you can read more about here The movement continues with fluent writing for the quintet, with tautly argued versions of the tunes, the first of which returns at 36:02.

39:14 The second movement, a ‘Scherzo’, is one of the composer’s best loved, written with endearing mischief. Barely has the movement started when you realise you are actually hearing its main theme. Then, at 41:10, there is a tender tune from the viola that stops you in your tracks if played as beautifully as it is here! It is a very close relative of tunes used by the composer in his New World Symphony, and is picked up by the first violin before the main tune of the Scherzo itself returns at 43:13.

45:23 – the third movement, a slow movement marked ‘Larghetto’ (in a slow tempo), begins in the same key that the second movement left off. It presents a lower texture of cello and viola, playing a relatively mellow and tender tune that spends half its time in the minor key, half in the major – giving it a ‘darkness to light’ quality. This tune then passes through a sequence of variations that enable Dvorak to show his mastery of development, putting the original tune in some very different guises (52:10, for instance, a vigorous transformation!)

55:43 – the last movement begins with a catchy tune. Clearly Dvorak likes his audiences to leave with a tune to whistle! He adds a second one in a minor key for good measure at 56:59, providing an effective contrast – skilfully easing back into the main tune at 57:41. The minor key tune appears again at 1:00:19 – before Dvorak once again brings us to the main tune at 1:01:03. By now it’s a fully-fledged earworm! The piece is wrapped up with a short but emphatic coda from 1:03:22.

Further listening

While we’re enjoying Czech chamber music it seems churlish not to mention a new disc from the Pavel Haas Quartet, just released on Czech record label Supraphon, which features the two string quartets of Smetana. These are abundantly tuneful pieces, enormous fun to listen to but with a depth to them that shouldn’t go unnoticed – the first charting the composer’s loss of hearing with a dramatic twist in the last movement.

For more concerts click here

Steven Isserlis and friends – Czech chamber music

Fate by the Czech artist Alphonse Mucha, 1920

Jeremy Denk (piano), Joshua Bell (violin), Lawrence Power (viola) and Steven Isserlis (cello), Wigmore Hall, 20 May 2015.

As Steven Isserlis wrote so eloquently in the program notes for this concert, ‘Why is it that so much Czech music is loveable in such a unique way?’

This, the first of two parts, revealed a quartet of composers intent on spoiling the listener with a mass of tunes (teacher Dvořák and pupil Suk) or using their music to express the highly charged climate in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s (Janáček and, from a distance, Martinů)

Jeremy Denk, Joshua Bell, Steven Isserlis and Lawrence Power planned this concert to perfection, the abundance of tunes placed first and last, with the deeper moments in between.

It is doubtful Suk’s Piano Quartet, the first published piece of a precocious seventeen year old, has ever had a performance like this, bursting with pride and enthusiasm. After a forthright statement of the first tune from the ensemble, a beautiful solo from Isserlis revealed the work’s softer underbelly, which came to the fore in a similarly affecting tune in the slow movement, the cello releasing a beautiful mellow sound.

Janáček’s Violin Sonata wore a permanently furrowed brow. The icy reach of the muted violin in the last of the four brief movements was key to summing up a work that bristles with anger, though redemption was briefly found in the second movement Balada, with a theme of silvery consolation.

The second of three cello sonatas by Bohuslav Martinů was next. Isserlis has championed these works for more than 25 years, and gave a commanding performance of a moving work. Written in America in 1938, the composer having successfully fled Paris and the Nazis, it is a deeply felt and resilient utterance, especially in the second movement where time stood still.

As far as the tunes were concerned, the best was saved until last. Dvořák’s Piano Quartet no.2 positively bursts with Czech melodies – which are revealed to be surprisingly close in mood and contour to the American tunes he was to use towards the end of his career. Here they were swept along in a wonderful performance of good feeling, played with great sensitivity by Jeremy Denk, whose phrasing was key to the utmost charm of the Scherzo, the tender Adagio and the rustic finale.

Yet this was music for a team of friends to enjoy, the music surging forwards with a positivity rarely experienced to this extent in the concert hall – and happily caught by microphones, hopefully for a future release on Wigmore Hall Live. Those Czechs, they knew a good tune – and these four were the best possible Bohemian Rhapsodists in waiting!

The music from this concert can be heard here on Spotify. Part two of this series is at the Wigmore Hall on Saturday 23 May, and will include the Dvořák Piano Quintet and the Piano Trio by Smetana.