Szymanowski String Quartet

Polish quartet sparkle at Queen's, Graeme Stewart reports

Heading into their 13th year together, the Szymanowski Quartet has long since developed an international reputation as one of the most technically capable and captivating string quartets in the business. Their appearance at this year’s Belfast Music Society’s Festival of International Chamber Music marks their quartet’s first visit to Belfast, and they bring an eclectic programme of classical, impressionist and contemporary music to the Harty Room at Queen's University.

At the top of the evening is Haydn’s String Quartet No. 48, 'The Dream’. A particularly challenging piece, it includes many solo moments for each player, particularly in the Vivace finale. The players’ sympathetic interpretation of the classical style - intonation, phrasing and dynamics - are all perfect, their abilities both as an ensemble and as individual players immediately apparent.

Next is a piece by Karol Szymanowski himself, 'String Quartet No. 1 in C', the work of a composer embroiled with the revolution of his Polish homeland. A forward-looking work, Szymanowski wrote it using various harmonic inflections, including bi- and tri-tonality. Even so, the music remains lush and lyrical, creating a dense contrapuntal texture.

The second half of the concert begins with Ravel’s famous 'String Quartet in F', a work that catapulted the young French composer’s career forward, causing a furore with the public after its unsuccessful application into the Prix de Rome. The piece is one of the first serious compositions of Ravel's career, and today remains one of the great chamber works of any of the 20th-century impressionists.

The opening sets the tone with its elegant main theme, moving into lush chords reminiscent of Claude Debussy who, incidentally, was one of the work’s earliest and fiercest advocates.

The second movement is the highlight of the evening, bringing the technical proficiency of the Szymanowski Quartet into sharp relief. Ravel was a fantastic orchestrator and nowhere is this more apparent than in the rhythmic jousting and colourful harmonies he was able to achieve with only four players. Marcin Sieniawski’s performance in particular is worth a note, with its furious double-stopping passages.

The finale is another Szymanowski work, 'Nocturne and Tarantella'. Originally scored for violin and piano, this work’s ethnic influence is apparent in the harmonies and rhythmic juxtapositions displayed throughout, written as it was in response to visits by the composer to Africa and Greece.

Much of the music takes on a life of its own, with extensive sections scored for the first violin using extended pizzicato techniques, and structurally can be described as impressionistic due to its goal of fusing classical and ethnic influences. While similar in style to the Szymaowski 'String Quartet in C', the performers take the opportunity to capitalize on the differences in tone and rhythm, and give an excellent performance.

The Szymanowski Quartet continue to surprise in their approach and execution of Szymanowksi's work, undoubtedly placing them at the cutting edge of contemporary chamber music.