Sunday afternoon was marked by another concert of the Janáček Brno 2020 festival. Chamber music performed by the Josef Suk Piano Quartet was given space in the Mozart Hall of Reduta. This ensemble (young both in the year of its founding and its age composition) prepared a truly beautiful and diverse programme for its visit to Brno, and presented it to the audience with adequate commitment.
The quartet stabilised in its current form in 2012; the lack of a multi-generational history typical of other chamber ensembles does not take anything away from the performance quality or successes achieved – whether this means tours abroad, recording or the opportunity to become an ensemble in residence of the Czech Chamber Music Society. The very name of the ensemble can confuse people, because the quartet is not named after the famous composer, but rather his grandson, the violinist Josef Suk, who lived and worked in the 20th century.
Gustav Mahler composed, in addition to his extensive symphonies and vocal compositions, only one chamber piece. However, only the first movement of the Piano Quartet in A minor has been preserved, and it was this particular piece that the reviewed concert began with. The gloomy and contemplative introduction of the piano in a triplet rhythm gradually developed into a branched composition, and already the very first tones of the strings were captivating with their clearly perceivable longing and pleading. All the instruments took their turns and appropriately complemented each other in sound and tone, both in the solos and the joint parts.
Somewhat surprisingly, without any separation, the second composition of the programme followed, Alfred Schnittke's Piano Quartet, once again consisting of just one movement. Schnittke was Mahler's great admirer, so he prepared a twenty-four-bar torso of the scherzo that was supposed to follow on the first movement of Mahler's quartet. Although the composition was based on the same musical material as the previous one, it was immediately obvious that it was a completely different work. From the first bars, the music sounded harmoniously bold, and the individual polyphonic lines fought one another in dissonant chords. Even here, however, the members of the quartet left no room for doubt and, with full commitment, led the composition through glissandos and clusters to a calm conclusion, pleasing in the piano part.
In addition to the musical charge, all four performers also maintained a charge of positivity throughout the concert. Their gratitude and joy in the concert performance was evident in every smile given to the audience during the applause, but also to each other. It was this communication between the individual players that was the key to success, meaning a perfectly coordinated presentation. The rendition of all the compositions at an excellent level was due not only to the energy put into it; the performers were not indifferent to the content of every phrase or idea that the composer perhaps tried to express through the tones. It seemed almost unbelievable how convincingly feelings can be expressed in music by merely instrumental means.
The interplay of the formation was noticeable, although not all the stem members of the ensemble took part in the concert. Radim Kresta, the founder of the quartet, skilfully coordinated the interplay and expression of the individual compositions from his leading position as violinist. Violinist Eva Krestová also spoke from the permanent members, playing her parts with determination and vigour. The couple was then complemented by the cellist Lukáš Polák, who with his certain strokes of the string provided firm support for the whole ensemble, and the piano, although standing somewhat back, excelled in its different tone and energy as performed by Pavel Zemen.
The last composition before the intermission was the Piano Trio, JW X/22 by Leoš Janáček. This work, as in the case of Mahler's quartet, has not been preserved. Janáček probably discarded it himself, but he composed a string quartet on the basis of it. A concept written by the composer and musicologist Miloš Štědroň, who tried to write the instrumentation for the original trio line-up based on the score of the quartet, was played in a purely male rendition. The riffs, which were characteristic of the theme of the first movement, were therefore preserved in the cello and violin parts. The piano, which did not have much space to excel in the first movement, pushed itself forward in the second movement in developed motif work characterising the entire four-movement piece. In the course of the following movements, the trio gave its full impression to the impressive contrasts of tempos and moods, pure lyricism and dramatic tension.
The second half of the concert featured the Quartet in A minor by Josef Suk. Although the work bears the opus number 1, it is not the very first composition by the composer. Although it is a composition from his early compositional period, when seventeen-year-old Suk began studying with Antonín Dvořák, it nevertheless achieves the qualities of a mature composer. The rendition of the first movement with a vigorous introduction throughout its course somewhat lacked lyrical romantic melodiousness, which was replaced by rather excessive fierceness, leading to a grandiose conclusion. In the second movement, the already calm voices were intertwined with a mildness of lyricism, from which each instrument was able to elevate its solo melodic line above the others at the right moment. Consistent work with detail was nothing new here either, whether it was a sophisticated vibrato, a decent split in the piano part or an emotional pizzicato (which stood out especially in the interplay of viola and cello). The third movement then began with a sharp dance-type introduction, from which the music progressed with a gradual enthusiasm to the gala conclusion.
The highly successful appearance of all the performers was followed by a long and well-deserved ovation, which the players interspersed with two encores – excerpts from Antonín Dvořák's Piano Quartet No. 2.
The pleasant atmosphere lifted Sunday afternoon to a unique musical experience, which again moved the Janáček festival visibly forward.
Janáček Brno International Opera and Music Festival
Piano Quartet in A minor
Piano Trio, JW X/22
Quartet in A minor, Op. 1 for piano, violin, viola and cello
Josef Suk Piano Quartet
Mozart Hall of the Reduta Theatre
Sunday, 4 October 2020