Thursday, February 6, 2020

Ensemble Music series: Polish string quartet works with Canadian pianist for sublime Dvorak

A string quartet of four young Polish musicians with a French name honors the traditional role of the Greek god Apollo as inspirer of the muses. Stravinsky's 1928 ballet, "Apollon Musagète," was later given a simpler title, "Apollo." Through his jealous championship of the lyre, the god has been celebrated as the divine force behind all music for strings.

Apollon Musagète reaches beyond the core repertoire, including work with Tori Amos.
The ensemble has extended the aura of that association, building an international reputation since its founding in Vienna in 2008. Wednesday evening the quartet played a program of Dvorak, Suk, and Schubert under the auspices of the Ensemble Music Society at the Glick Indiana History Center.

The high point involved a collaboration with Canadian pianist Charles Richard-Hamelin, who distinguished himself in the quartet's homeland as silver-prize winner  at the 2015 International Chopin Competition in Warsaw. An expansive piece that remains at the summit of the repertoire for the combination of string quartet and piano, the Dvorak Quintet in A major, op. 81, enjoyed a luminous, supremely well-balanced performance Wednesday.

The Bohemian ethnic brand got startling prominence in the two middle movements — Dumka: Andante con moto and Furiant: Molto vivace. You rarely hear the slow-fast contrasts of Dumka episodes so sharply characterized in both mood and tempo as they were here. The rapid Furiant, in alternating meters, was consistently energized by accents and restless figuration. The pianist's sparkling tone matched the string players' glimmer and glow. And as the finale made clear — when I couldn't take my ears off the pianist, as it  were — Richard-Hamelin had an exquisitely balanced tone: great independence of finger meant that the proper weight was distributed among the notes of every chord. If Apollo was the inspirer of the muses. Richard-Hamelin seemed to be the inspirer of Apollon Musagète in this piece.

A Dvorak appetizer was offered by the quartet just before intermission. Two waltzes from Op. 54, originally piano pieces, were brightly played, given as much personality as their unpretentiousness deserved. Tempos had a plasticity well suited to the adaptable dance form the music celebrates. In the mostly headlong second waltz, the teasing push-pull of eastern European folk music, in which slowing cadences often set up fresh outbursts of energy, was charmingly rendered by the flawlessly coordinated foursome.

Josef Suk studied with Dvorak.
Bohemian roots of a much different sort nourished the program-opener, Josef Suk's Meditations on an Old Czech Hymn, "St. Wenceslas." The somber piece, with its carefully generated climax, emphasized Apollo Musagète's unanimity of phrasing and its balanced, eloquent yet restrained tone worthy of a fine choir.

There remained an oblique salute to the city of the quartet's origin: Vienna, as Apollon Musagète exhibited the burgeoning genius of Franz Schubert in his first string quartet (in G minor/B-flat major, D. 18). The work of a teenager — a prolific native son and, as it turned out, one without much of a life span to spare — it opened in an atmosphere that seemed a foreshadowing of the Suk piece. The first movement quickly brightens, however, and the quartet exhibited its well-considered distribution of melodic and ornamental features. In the second movement, first violinist Pawel Zalejski's serene, muted statement of the melody floated in unruffled grandeur.

The group's other members, speaking musically with a common mind here and elsewhere, are Bartosz Zachlod, second violin; Piotr Szumiel, viola, and Piotr Skweres, cello. The three musicians whose instruments can be played standing did so, and the advantage was palpable. They wore identical purple plaid suits; there was considerable discussion during intermission about why the cellist was not similarly dressed. It turns out that Skweres' luggage did not arrive with the others'.

1 comment:

  1. p.s. I don't recall the Tori Amos work mentioned in the photo caption.