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Haydn, Beethoven Royal String Quartet (Izabella Szalaj-Zimak, Elwira Przybylowska, violins; Marek Czech, viola; Michal Pepol, cello), Wigmore Hall, 1pm, Monday December 13th, 2004 (CC)

Part of the New Generations Series, this lunchtime concert was an important occasion. Important in the sense that the young Royal String Quartet are to be the Wigmore’s Quartet-in-Residence in 2006. This was their chance to shine, to a large audience in the hall as well as to the loyal band of Radio 3 listeners.

Unfortunately I have not yet heard their disc on the Dux label (and don’t confuse the quartet with the ‘other’ Royal String Quartet, a Danish ensemble that has recorded Anton Rubinstein’s first two quartets for the EtCetera label) and the disc mentioned in their bio on Sony Classical of Piazzolla seems to have been a Sony Classical Poland release.

The Royal String Quartet is young, so this was a daring programme. Haydn’s D minor Quartet, Op. 76 No. 2 (interestingly enough, recorded on Harmonia Mundi by another young quartet that have graced this very concert series) was juxtaposed with Beethoven’s Op. 74, the so-called ‘Harp’ Quartet. Only twelve years separate these works (1797 and 1809 respectively), yet there is a quantum leap in expressive breadth.

Youthful energy was certainly not in short supply for the Haydn, which began in the most determined of fashions. Immediately it became obvious that the two first violinists are very much equals. The youth of the Royal Quartet acted as a real advantage here, as all four instrumentalists seemed very much fascinated by Haydn’s never-ending invention. Doubts emerged with the second movement, not a ‘real’ slow movement as such (‘Andante o più tosto allegretto’). The ability to project Haydnesque simplicity is the result of many years’ experience, and one waits with eagerness what the Royal Quartet may yet bring to this music. Certainly the intention is all there, but concentration from the performers did dip. Not so in the sparsely canonic writing of the third movement, nor in the playful finale (a shame first violinist Izabella Szalaj-Zimak’s tone was wiry here).

Beethoven’s Op. 74 quartet was a really brave choice. Better in the near-orchestral sonorities of the first movement’s Allegro, the Poco Adagio that opens the work pointed once more to the Quartet’s need to penetrate beneath the music’s surface. Technically, they are superb; now is the time, I would suggest, for them to take this music and learn it well, in private, and only release it slowly onto the public. A BBC broadcast of a Wigmore event is certainly not a slow exposure and the nerves perhaps came through, particularly in the Adagio, ma non troppo, which was initially very unsettled. The Presto third movement was nearly the power-house it should be, leading to a finale that was full of eloquence.

A tentative welcome, then. It will be interesting to watch what becomes of the Royal String Quartet, and its residency gives London audiences the opportunity to watch an undeniably talented group grow.

Colin Clarke

Further listening:

Haydn: Jerusalem Quartet (see review)
Beethoven: Takács Quartet Decca 470 847-2 (two-disc set, including also the three ‘Razumovsky’ Quartets Op. 59)



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