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Szymanowski, Schumann and Janáček: Iwona Sobotka (soprano), Henning Kraggerud (violin and viola), Piotr Anderszewski (piano), Belcea Quartet, Wigmore Hall, London, 7.5.2010 (BBr)

The  Belcea Quartet are:

Corina Belcea–Fisher and Laura Samuel (violins)
Krzysztof Chorzelski (viola)
Antoine Lederlin (cello)

Janáček: Violin Sonata (1914/1915)

Szymanowski: Metopes, op.29 (1914)

Schumann: Märchenbilder, op.113 (1851)

Szymanowski: Songs of a Fairy Princess, op.31 (1915)

String Quartet No.2, op.56 (1927)

It was a bold move to start this show with Janáček’s Violin Sonata, for this is the master at his most obsessive. There’s an almost neurotic insistence in this work, small, tantalising flecks of melody come and go, sometimes refusing to allow the music to develop so adamant is their stubbornness. Kraggerud and Anderszewski gave a mighty interpretation of the work, emphasizing the other worldliness of much of the material. It’s interesting to note that this elusively melodic work was followed by the orchestral rhapsody Taras Bulba which is overtly emotional and lyrical, and is full of rich patriotic fervor. Tonight’s performance showed what a great work this is, but it also proved why it isn’t programmed as often as it should be – it’s very hard to bring off. We should be grateful for a performance of this stature.

Szymanowski’s piano suite
Metopes is another of his oriental works. Like the Janáček, the melodies are obscure, the music restless and intangible. Anderszewski played from memory – no mean feat in itself – and with an ease which never made one think of the immense difficulties of technique but allowed one to concentrate entirely on the music itself. This was a masterly interpretation.

I’m not quite sure how Schumann’s
Märchenbilder fitted into the scheme of things. The four pieces are quite delightful but, musically, it didn’t fit into this hotbed of eroticism and grand passion, even as a relief from the rest. Kraggerud proved himself to be as adept on the viola as the violin and he gave a small scale performance which was just about perfect.

After the interval things heated up again. Szymanowski’s Songs of a Fairy Princess have always fascinated me for the simple reason that there is nothing vaguely fairy princess–like about his music, for the soprano is in ecstasy throughout, singing music which is devilishly high in tessitura and full of eastern promise, mainly that of sexual fervour. To be sure, the poor woman has her problems –

Sometimes I feel that God by mistake

Shut not a heart but a nightingale in my breast

- but there’s nothing in Szymanowski’s sister’s verses which would lead one to expect he kind of music he wrote. Perhaps he saw something in them which I am missing. No matter, this is a cycle of great beauty, into which Ms Sobotka gave her all, and so intense was her interpretation that I was quite worn out by the end, through sheer emotional force. And this is how it should be with these songs.

To end, Szymanowski’s 2nd String Quartet – a work which is well on the way to the full Polish style he was working towards. It’s a work as fantastic in its way as are the Fairy Princess Songs, but here it’s all to do with having your feet on the ground and working with the people, so to speak. What is most interesting is that the work shows that he had, possibly without realizing it, already by this time created the Polish music he was aiming for, for in every bar one could sense both Grazyna Bacewicz and Andrzej Panufnik ready to continue, refine and improve, on the style. As with all tonight’s performers the Belcea Quartet was on top form, and, with the most persuasive playing, made a difficult work, at the end of an emotionally draining concert, seem the perfect conclusion. A packed Wigmore Hall rose to greet  all the performers with the warmest and most grateful of ovations. Quite right too, this was most deserved.

The concert was recorded by BBC Radio3 and will be broadcast on 12th July 2010.

Bob Briggs


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