Apollon Musagète: the Quintessential Quartet

Review by Paul Merkley, FRSC

​Toronto ON February 23rd 2018

Apollon Musagète Quartet; Photo Credit: Michael Borggreve

Listening to a string quartet is unlike other musical experiences, perhaps because in a good quartet, the players are paying such close attention to each other that they hardly seem to notice the audience at all; one has the impression of being permitted to observe scenes from the private musical life of four musicians who know each other so well that they could be related. Pawel Zalejski (violin), Bartosz Zachlod (violin), Piotr Szumiel (viola), and Piotr Skweres (cello) perform together so perfectly that they seem to be one big, sophisticated brain playing four instruments. Different dynamics, tempi, and articulations were precisely synchronized and beautifully excuted.​


​​The first work on the program was Haydn’s Quartet Opus 65 No. 5, published in London in 1790, just at the time Haydn left the Esterházy family (the prince died and the new ruler reduced the musical establishment) and took up his career in the exciting metropolis of London. The impresario Salomon engaged Haydn (then reputed to be the greatest musician in the world) to undertake public concerts. In many ways this quartet resembles those that Haydn wrote earlier (the first movement has a monothematic sonata form like most of his quartets, sonatas, and symphonies). The most noticeable difference is the first violin part at the beginning, that soars above the theme (hence its nickname ‘The Lark’), articulated by the other three instruments, a feature that would have played well in the public concerts, for which the audience wanted to hear a virtuoso soloist. Zalejski gave this a delicate, sensitive interpretation.

Next came the Quartet Opus 35a by Anton Arensky, a composer not as well known, but one who was at the centre of the most important Russian musicians and events, a composition student of Rimsky-Korsakov, and the harmony and counterpoint teacher of Gliere, Rachmaninoff, and Skryabin. He was also close to Tchaikovsky, and he wrote this quartet in 1894 as a memorial to him. In the first and last movements cellist Skweres supplied the colour of a Russian bass soloist, intoning chant, in a rhythm that was almost spoken. The second movement was variations on a theme by Tchaikovsky. The quartet was originally scored for one violin, one viola, and two cellos (opus 35); Arensky later arranged it in this way for performance by a standard string quartet.

Last on the programme was Grieg’s Quartet Opus 27, composed in 1888. Grieg’s place in music history is often thought of as a composer in the Norwegian nationalist style, or as the author of the dazzling piano concerto, but this quartet is a different kind of work. The setting out of the parts in parallel writing is unusual. Grieg wrote a letter to a friend at the time, explaining the difficulty he had in composing the piece, and his ambition to develop a different form and style for the genre. Debussy’s string quartet is frequently named as the first to employ this technique, opening the way to a new style, but Grieg’s work antedates it. The work has many dramatic sections, and the players rose to the occasion, playing the parallel parts with razor-sharp exactitude, and matching each other in the contrasting softs, louds, slows, and very fasts.

We, the audience, the onlookers (‘onlisteners’) were thrilled by the music, and, after a standing ovation, the quartet obliged us by performing a modern tango tinted with dissonance.  It was an ideal evening of chamber music. Next in the Music Toronto series is a performance by the Pendercki Quartet on Thursday March 15.

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