Friday, 29 March 2013


Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Concert Hall
Wednesday (27 March 2013)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 29 March 2013 with the title "Pleasing symmetry by Polish quartet".

2013 has been exceptional year for chamber music, and it got even better at the 6th Singapore Chamber Festival with a very challenging but rewarding recital by the Lutoslawski Quartet from Poland. Seldom has a programme of 20th and 21st century chamber music been performed with such vibrancy and dedication.

Its first half ran for close to an hour, beginning with the String Quartet (1964) by Witold Lutoslawski (1913-1994) whose birth centenary is celebrated this year and after whom the ensemble is named. Its atonal 25 minutes in two movements were a concentrated study in modernist gestures and techniques, with little concession made for both performer and listener.

The opening gambit was dispatched with utter clarity by first violinist Jakub Jakowicz; mere wisps and shards of muted tones, and answered with an equally trenchant response by his three partners. The mostly quiet first movement was contrasted by lacerating violence and rapidity of reflexes, a deliberately provocative riposte in the ensuing movement. The storm eventually settled with the sustained long lines of the final lament, closing with the apparent placidity of its beginning.
Even if one did not take to the uncompromising and rarefied musical language, it was hard to ignore the manner to which the players listened and responded to each other. Each had his own distinctive and very difficult part but together they resounded in one accord, which is the true mark of virtuosity

By comparison, Shostakovich’s Eighth String Quartet (1960) is an established classic. The composer’s own motto theme (D-E flat-C-B) hovered ominously through its proceedings, with quotations from earlier works thrown into the fray. Satirical and grotesque elements were keenly brought out in this rapt reading, leaving one without a doubt that while he had dedicated the work to “the victims of Fascism”, Shostakovich counted himself among them.

The second half opened with the Third String Quartet by Marcin Markowicz, the quartet’s second violinist. It was the shortest work and ironically the most approachable. It began with a familiar motif from the first violin, which comes from the opening of Szymanowski’s Roxana’s Song (from the opera King Roger).

The tonal work ambled into an impish scherzo, reminiscent of Shostakovich, and culminated with a furious fugue, the subject of which was instigated by Markowicz himself. Like a rainbow’s arc, the earlier song returned but now shared by the foursome.

The aural beauty continued with Karol Szymanowski’s Second String Quartet (1937), with Marciej Mlodawski’s cello singing high above a gently rocking accompaniment. The first movement was played on mutes throughout, while the vigorous scherzo relived the spirit of folk music and dance of  Poland’s Tatra Mountains, providing both rhythmic and thematic contrasts.

The finale comprised two fugal episodes, the second of which was an echo of Shostakovich’s motto theme. As the concert drew to an emphatic close and very enthusiastic applause, it did so with a pleasing symmetry.

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