Notes and Editorial Reviews
String Quartet in a,
String Quartet No. 1.
Apollon Musagète Qrt
OEHMS 749 (75:38)
With this album, the
Apollon Musagète Quartet, founded in 2006, makes its first appearance on record. Its members (Pawe? Zalejski and Bartosz Zach?od, violins; Piotr Szumie?, viola; and Piotr Skweres, cello) are Polish, but they came together as a quartet in Vienna and are currently resident there. Two years later they won first prize and special prizes in the string quartet category at the 57th ARD International Music Competition in Munich, and took further prizes at the International Chamber Music Competitions in Vienna and Florence. The handle they’ve taken on, Apollon Musagète Quartet, is borrowed from Stravinsky’s ballet of the same name. According to the booklet note, the players’ goal is to “fulfill the Apollonian,” and to perform contemporary works written for them that relate in some way to Apollon (aka Apollo), the Greek god of music, poetry, archery, healing, prophecy, and protection of the young.
There’s nothing like jumping in with both feet, or, in this case, eight feet. The program the quartet has chosen for its debut CD is an ambitious one, and in at least one of the works—the Brahms quartet—competition from established ensembles is fierce. As with every recently formed string ensemble I’ve encountered, the Apollon Musagète is technically flawless. Intonation is true, tone production is pure and balanced, phrasing and breathing are well matched, and rhythmic articulation is crisp and clean. So, that pretty much leaves the critic with little other than matters of musical penetration and interpretive decisions to discuss.
Among Haydn’s later string quartets, the op. 71 set, consisting of three numbers, seems to be of lesser popularity than its companion op. 74 set, which contains the very popular G Minor, so-called “Rider” Quartet, op. 74/3. Both sets (six quartets in all), known collectively as the “Apponyi” Quartets, were written in 1793 and dedicated to Count Anton Georg Apponyi, a relative of Haydn’s patrons.
If one was wondering why I cited only the Brahms, and not the Haydn, as presenting serious recorded competition to the Apollon Musagète, it’s precisely because there is a current deficit in recent recordings on modern instruments and/or stand-alone recordings that are not part of mega-box sets. If you’re a period-instrument fan, you’re in luck, for there’s a fine performance of op. 71/2 by the Festetics Quartet on Calliope, available in a mid-price two-disc set that includes all six of the “Apponyi” quartets. As of this writing, the Mosaïques Quartet has not yet gotten around to the “Apponyi” quartets in its Haydn cycle.
For the modern-instrument crowd, here’s what you face: (1) dated, poorly recorded, and/or historically uninformed performances by the Griller, Tátrai, and Amadeus Quartets; (2) the Lindsay Quartet, which is in a class by itself for its well-publicized intonation problems, and which I refuse ever to listen to again for fear of permanently damaging my hearing; and (3) the Kodály and Angeles Quartets that come in jumbo-sized boxes that include Haydn’s complete string quartets.
That leaves the Buchberger Quartet, which until as recently as
33:4, had James North believing the ensemble was playing on period instruments when in fact it was not. I’ve sampled some of the Buchberger cycle and, to be honest, I don’t share North’s enthusiasm for this German ensemble. You can sample it for yourself without having to spring for Brilliant Classics’ 23-disc set, since the discs also come packaged in smaller subsets.
Then there is the Auryn Quartet on Tacet, another modern-instrument ensemble that adapts its sound and style of playing to resemble period-instrument practices. In 32:5, North thought the Auryn a safer bet over the what he’d heard so far of the Buchberger cycle, primarily because the former “pays closer attention to Haydn’s dynamic and staccato marks and plays more repeats.”
Given that my own personal choice would be for none of the above, that leaves the Apollon Musagète with the field pretty much to itself. And happily, the ensemble’s Haydn is a success. Playing in quick-paced movements is brisk without sounding breathless or brusque. The composer’s musical hijinks and humor are delivered with a tickle and a titter, as I suspect they would have been in a drawing-room setting of their time, rather than as a locker-room towel-snap to the behind. The expansive Adagio sings its soulful song at just the right emotional temperature, and the Menuetto, one of Haydn’s shortest, at less than two minutes, disappears from the dance floor with the sly gesture of a dropped handkerchief.
The Brahms A-Minor Quartet is another kettle of soup. Here the Apollon Musagète is up against competitors both more numerous and more formidable. There is great beauty in the quartet’s playing, especially when it comes to passages of heartache that express the composer’s sense of loneliness and longing. But in its pages, as in most of Brahms’s works, there is also underlying angst and tension that propel the music forward and well up in great climactic moments of frightful passion. I miss some of this in the Apollon Musagète’s performance. It’s not flaccid, to be sure, but the reading strikes me as being not quite urgent or importunate enough, as if the players hold back slightly, impeding forward momentum, where the music wants to surge ahead. An example is in the coda to the first movement, where it seems that the group is just a bit too controlled—i.e., not willing to let loose with everything it’s got. Make no mistake, this is gorgeous playing, with phrasing lovingly caressed and inner details brought to the fore in ways that more hectoring readings brush aside. I’m just not sure how far you can go in elevating Apollo over Dionysus in Brahms. My favorites continue to be the Sine Nomine Quartet on Claves, the Colorado Quartet on Parnassus, and on Deutsche Grammophon the more recent Emerson Quartet which, for now, in my opinion, sweeps the boards.
I’m a relative newcomer to Szymanowski’s string quartets, having only recently acquired Hyperion’s recording with the Royal String Quartet. Frankly, this is music I don’t readily respond to. It rather suggests to me what something might sound like if Janá?ek, Bartók, and Schoenberg collaborated on writing it. It is hyper-romantic in that oppressive hothouse way that some of Schoenberg’s pre-12-tone works are; at the same time, it exhibits the speech-inflected gestures and stammering rhythms of Janá?ek, while a rabble of riled-up Bartók peasants brandishes pitchforks. From listening to this quartet, you would never know—at least I wouldn’t—that, according to biographical sources, Szymanowski was most strongly influenced by Strauss, Reger, Scriabin, Debussy, and Ravel. The Reger connection I might pick up on from the fugal Finale of the quartet, but the rest of the parties named, I don’t think so, certainly not in this particular piece anyway. In 32:5, Adrian Corleonis did not care at all for the Royal String Quartet’s performance, and even without appreciating the music, I can hear in an A-B comparison how much more frantic and frenzied, in a good way, the Apollon Musagète is in this score. I wish the ensemble had brought a bit more of that agitation to the Brahms.
The disc concludes with a piece,
, by Russian composer Rodion Shchedrin (b. 1932). I’m not sure I can say much about it other than that it’s written in a kind of post-Shostakovich idiom, and that the only lexicon in which the word “lyric” would ever apply to it is the Urban Dictionary. I was not surprised to find no other recordings of it listed, though the Oehms disc does not indicate that this is its first appearance on record.
The Apollon Musagète Quartet is definitely one to watch. Recommended, but with caveats noted.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
Works on This Recording
Quartet for Strings no 1 in C major, Op. 37 by Karol Szymanowski
Apollon Musagáte Quartet
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1917; Poland
Venue: Hochschule für Musik und Theater München
Length: 17 Minutes 35 Secs.
Lyric Scenes, for string quartet by Rodion Shchedrin
Apollon Musagáte Quartet
Venue: Hochschule für Musik und Theater München
Length: 9 Minutes 6 Secs.
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