Quartet in transition
With the Szymanowski Quartet things are not “same old, same old.” Of the four works that figured on the group’s Feb. 8 recital at St. Francis Auditorium, sponsored by Santa Fe Pro Musica, only the last, Dvorˇák’s Quartet in A-flat Major (Op. 105), aligned with mainstream expectations when it came to interpretation. The composer’s final entry among his 14 quartets, it invited the most democratic musicmaking of the afternoon, evenhandedly accentuating each of the four players and thereby underscoring both strengths and weaknesses.
The group’s most obvious strength was violinist Grzegorz Kotów, whose expansive musical personality emerged as the foursome’s dominant voice. In years past, he was well balanced by violinist Andrej Bielow (the two traded off the first- and second-violin parts), but Bielow’s chair was ceded to Agata Szymczewska beginning this season. A settling-in period is inevitable, and perhaps Szymczewska will prove to be as interesting and characterful a musician as Kotów is. As things now stand, her tight tone was less appealing, and she proved strikingly deferential during her moments in the spotlight. Violist Vladimir Mykytka rose to the occasion in his inner line. Dvoˇrák had been a professional violist and provided generously when writing parts for his descendants; at one point in the first movement, he encourages the violist by indicating that a phrase should be played espressivo e molto cantabile (expressively and in a very songlike fashion), which is precisely what Mykytka provided. Cellist Marcin Sieniawski was warm-toned to a fault, the lowest line sometimes lacking tension or sonic vitality. Some details were fine indeed; the full-ensemble shivers in the finale, for example, were executed with finesse. It sounded like a high-quality quartet in the process of regaining its balance and not quite reining in a piece that has a tendency to ramble.
The program opened with Mozart’s Divertimento in F major (K. 138/125c), written just as its composer was turning sixteen. The foursome freighted it with a heavy load of interpretation, apparently intent on not letting this youthful effort seem trivial. Transitory bending of tempo broke the momentum, not to the piece’s benefit, and the finale was punchy to the point of percussiveness; and yet these ideas were worked out carefully and rendered precisely. The Notturno and Tarantella by Karol Szymanowski was offered by his namesake musicians in a densely textured arrangement crafted expressly for the ensemble (the original is for violin and piano), its exotic, guitar-strumming allusions recalling the composer’s recent vacation in Spain.
Like the Mozart, Haydn’s Quartet in E-flat major (Op. 33, No. 2) was construed with detailed imagination. Kotów was front and center, infusing the first-violin part with fascinating variety. Again the ensemble engaged in expressive massaging of the tempo. You can buy that interpretation or not, but the musicians’ ideas were clearly argued, and you have to appreciate their trying to find something new in a thrice-familiar masterwork. This is nicknamed the Joke Quartet. If any readers don’t know what the ultimate joke is, I’m not going to spoil it, but I think that investing the final phrase with a ritardando undercut the punch line.
Earlier this season I commented on traffic-control problems at a Pro Musica concert in St. Francis Auditorium. This time, everything was smooth as could be — and cookies were served to delighted attendees at intermission.