Last night at Washington Irving High School, the Skampa String Quartet initiated the new season of Peoples' Symphony Concerts with the first program in the Mann Series. The Skampa are repeat visitors to PSC, and their visits are eagerly anticipated, because this is one of the best European string quartets, and they surely lived up to their reputation last night.
They began with the two movements Josef Haydn completed before abandoning his last string quartet, an Andante Grazioso and a Menuet & Trio movement, subsequently published as Op. 103. The first movement has an elegiac quality, and the Skampa treated it with great restraint and beauty, followed by an energetic Minuet (tempo marking "ma no troppo Presto") with contrasting songful trio. I was struck by the depth of their beautiful sound in this music.
Following came the relatively unfamiliar String Quartet in G Major, Op. 106, by Antonin Dvorak. We hear plenty of Dvorak's chamber music at PSC, but if a string quartet is on the menu, it is almost always this piece's immediate predecessor, the so-called "American Quartet" composed during Dvorak's U.S. sojourn in the early 1890s. The "American" is full of memorable tunes, concisely developed, and goes by like a breeze. By contrast, this Op. 106 is a big-scaled work, devoted more to the working out of motifs than the exposure and repetition of pretty tunes, and understandably a bit less audience-friendly. Indeed, I was struck during the first movement with the feeling that this was a symphony trapped in the too-small scale of a string quartet. I thought the music would benefit from orchestration, and I could even hear where oboes or clarinets would help, as would a full orchestral string section. The feeling stayed with me throughout the piece. This is not to slight the Skampa's accomplishment. They played with fervor, and produced a big statement. I just think the music itself is too big for this format, and apart from some moments in the last two movements, did not have the automatic crowd-pleasing lyrical quality of Dvorak's more familiar works.
Finally, after intermission, we had a performance of Dmitri Shostakovich's 8th String Quartet, Op. 110, which was truly memorable. This piece is string quartet as autobiography, for the composer wove into the texture extended quotes from several of his earlier works, most prominently the First Symphony — a student piece that established his international reputation when Toscanini conducted the U.S. premiere with the NBC Symphony in a national radio broadcast — as well as the Cello Concerto No. 1 and the Piano Trio No. 2. These quotations surface continually throughout the work, woven into the fabric, making the piece a sort of career restrospective. The Skampa played it with high intensity. The audience was so stunned by the quiet ending — perhaps reflecting the composer's confrontation with his own mortality as the health problems that were to plague the final period of his life had begun to surface by the time this was written — that there was prolonged silence before the vociferous ovation.
The Skampa Quartet favored us with a sweet encore, a movement from the quartet arrangements that Dvorak made from some early songs, published under the title Cypresses.
This was a most auspicious beginning to a new PSC season. The next concert in the series will feature the Brentano String Quartet on December 4. The other Washington Irving High School series will begin on November 20 with Alison Balsom, the trumpet virtuoso, and this should be a real hot ticket. (Unfortunately, I've had to give away my ticket due to a scheduling conflict that night.) By coincidence, the December issue of BBC Music Magazine that just arrived includes a CD of trumpet concerto performances by Balsom, my first exposure to her playing, and she is awesome!
Single tickets for the Washington Irving High concerts begin at $12 – no bigger classical concert bargain in New York. Check out their website – pscny.org.