Yesterday afternoon in Herbst Theatre, Chamber Music San Francisco began its 2016 season with a return visit from the Szymanowski Quartet. Named in honor of the Polish twentieth-century composer Karol Szymanowski, the group consists of violinists Agata Szymczewska and Grzegorz Kotów, alternating in occupation of first chair, violist Vladimir Mykytka, and cellist Marcin Sienawski. They prepared a program that could be taken as an exploration of the exotic, and their innovative approach to repertoire compensated for the occasional uneven elements of their execution. This was most evident in the few moments when Sienawski seemed to lose track of his intonation and when Szymczewska’s sonorities tended to thin out in the very high register. However, these were isolated moments, well compensated by the attentiveness with which each player listened to the others and some well thought-out approaches to both dynamics and phrasing.
The quartet’s namesake was represented on the program by his Opus 28 coupling of a nocturne and a tarantella. Szymanowski composed this for violin and piano in 1915, and it was later arranged for string quartet by Myroslav Skoryk. The thematic material seems to be a reflection on a Mediterranean journey that the composer had recently completed. The nocturne is pervaded with Spanish idioms, if not extended quotations, while the tarantella suggests that Szymanowski’s trip included Naples, which made a lasting impression. Led by Szymczewska, the ensemble effectively captured Szymanowski’s rhetorical core of fond memories of the wonders that lie beyond his homeland’s borders.
On the other hand the program began with exotic music from Poland itself. In this case the exoticism was one of time, rather than distance. The quartet performed four four-part chorale settings by the sixteenth century Polish composer Wacław of Szamotuły. The program book said nothing about the sources for these chorales. (For that matter it said absolutely nothing about any of the music that was performed.) Wacław is probably best known for his motets, most of which were probably in four voices and would have included chorale sections. So the performance probably amounted to the quartet dividing up the four vocal lines according to the registers of their respective instruments. What emerged was a dutiful account of the source material, executed without vibrato to evoke sixteenth-century instrumental practices. Still there was no sense of the spiritual motivation behind the music itself, making the interpretation little more than a somewhat academic study of four-part harmony.
The other main source of exoticism was Russia. This was not Russia as viewed from Poland, however, but the Russia known to early nineteenth-century Vienna through the Russian ambassador, Andrey Razumovsky. The Szymanowski Quartet chose to play the last of the three quartets from Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 59, written on a commission from Razumovsky. Ironically, they chose the one quartet that does not incorporate any Russian themes. Thus, this selection was exotic more in spirit, rather than in the letter of the text.
Nevertheless, it is a particularly challenging composition; and, for the most part, the ensemble rose admirably to its challenges. This was where their approach to dynamics was most evident. The result was that, even for those very familiar with the music itself, the execution turned up thematic phrasings that endowed the entire composition with a stimulating freshness. The only real shortcoming came with the frantic approach to the Allegro molto fugue of the final movement. The adjective “molto” does not mean “extreme;” and, presumably, Beethoven wanted his listeners to be aware of his fugue subject and its migration across the four instruments, rather than the sort of textured blur that recalls listing to a tape player while it is in fast forward.
The program also featured clarinetist Ivar Berix as guest artist, joining the quartet players for a performance of Carl Maria von Weber’s Opus 34 quintet in B-flat major. Given the number of pieces he wrote featuring this instrument as a solo part, Weber clearly had a great love for the clarinet. He may have acquired his interest through the music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, but he developed his own toolbox of tropes for exploring the virtuoso capabilities of the instrument. These receive more than ample display in Opus 34, but the overall thematic vocabulary is still more than a little limited. Weber clearly had the best of intentions but never seemed to take them very far.
Nevertheless, listening to Berix was a real treat. His polished sonorities were perfectly matched to meticulous control of dynamics and phrasing. Still, there was a certain ordinariness to the four movements of Weber’s quintet that even the best soloist could not easily overcome. Only the scherzo-like Menuetto rose about the rest of the composition, sparkling with a start-and-stop wit that defied any sense of this being dance music. The impact of that movement was strong enough to earn it an encore for Berix.
Similar wit could be found in the quartet’s own encore selection. This was a polka from a collection of music by a variety of Russian composers entitled Les vendredis (Fridays). The polka itself was the collaborative effort of three composers, Nikolay Sokolov, Alexander Glazunov, and Anatoly Lyadov. (For those curious about the collaboration, the IMSLP Web page specifies which measures were written by which composers.) This was clearly the result of all three artists enjoying themselves, and the Szymanowski Quartet delighted just as much in sharing the full measure of that joy with their audience.