This afternoon in Herbst Theatre, Chamber Music San Francisco launched its 2013 season in San Francisco with a recital by the Szymanowski Quartet, violinists Andrej Bielow and Grzegorz Kotów, violist Vladimir Mykytka, and cellist Marcin Sienawski. The program consisted of the fourth of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 18 string quartets in C minor, Maurice Ravel’s only string quartet in F major, and Antonín Dvořák’s Opus 106 in G major, one of his last pieces of chamber music. For a group with “a strong commitment to contemporary music” (according to the program book), one might have expected something a bit more recent than Ravel, perhaps even by a living composer. However, since Opus 106 gets far less attention than its composer’s Opus 96 (the “American”), the program had some share of novelty for many in the audience.
The comfort zone for today’s performance seemed to be with Ravel. All four members of the quartet seemed intently focused on the many twists in the composer’s rhetorical devices. The balance across the four instruments nicely revealed all the subtlety of those devices, along with the composer’s keen ear for blending sonorities and the imaginative ways in which striking harmonies emerge from the contrapuntal interplay of the voices.
Unfortunately, neither Beethoven nor Dvořák held up quite so well, not at least with any sense of consistency across the span of four movements. Nevertheless, the Adagio ma non troppo movement of Opus 106 definitely emerged as a strong point. In many ways it reflects back on the intimacy of the string quartet arrangement of twelve of the love songs collected in Cypresses, an arrangement that Dvořák prepared a little over ten years prior to Opus 106. However, while each of those songs was distilled down to the utmost brevity, in that Adagio ma non troppo movement Dvořák seemed to home in on just the right approaches to prolongation in order to extend the intensity of emotional impact.
Nevertheless, the movement contrasts sharply with the other three movements of the quartet, which are lighter in tone, served up with a generous share of wit. This is where the performance was at its weakest. The performers tended to take a very low-key approach to those passages that even faintly suggested wit, almost as if the spirit were inappropriate in the setting of that Adagio ma non troppo. However, Dvořák was a complex individual in whom a rich mixture of different moods was entirely appropriate; and the overall approach felt like a short-changed account of a quartet that had so much more to express.
Lack of wit was also the major shortcoming in the Beethoven performance. While it is true that C minor tended to be Beethoven’s most serious key and that there is considerable darkness in the score, particularly in the first movement, things lighten up in the second movement; and that darkness never returns with very much menace. One can even find wit, albeit with a sardonic rhetoric, in that first movement. Here again, the performance was too low-key to do justice to the rich character traits embedded in the score. Had either Beethoven or Dvořák been granted the full-blooded expressiveness revealed in the Ravel quartet, this would have been a thoroughly satisfying recital.