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Concert Report: Quarrel Quartet

img  Tobias

It’s my birthday and we have decided to escape the city, spend some time at the sea and revisit the small harbour town of Husum, whose intimately grey streets I already wandered as a guest of its internationally renowned Piano Festival this Summer. The strength of this place is that despite its comparably rich cultural program, there is so utterly little to do here that it forces you to focus on the agreeable things in life – I can’t help but think of it as a tiny island within endless, wind-swept peristaltic greenness.

Every day here is like Saturday: Breakfast takes until eleven and then you go for a long stroll to the outskirts of the old city, crossing the rail-road tracks to follow the old dam to where it meets the ocean. In the afternoon, you sit down for a pot of black tea and some generously oversized slices of cake in a thickly carpeted cafe, dreaming away in some books you’ve been meaning to read for months and watching the foggy damp daylight gradually turn to darkness outside. Slowly you walk back to the hotel, dress for dinner and warm up by taking long, hot showers, Then you stride through the black cold of the night breathing out cabbagy plumes of clouds while deciding between which of these warm, dimly lit restaurants serving a rich variety of delicious fish dishes and locally interpreted vegetarian recipes you’re going to visit.

Tonight, we are ignoring the sizeable DVD collection we’ve brought along with us in favour of watching the Quarrel Quartet perform at the “Schloss” (palace). Everything moves slowly in Husum and yet we’re hurrying over the chinky cobblestone square towards the entrance with the tower’s resonant bells directly above us tolling eight times as if to announce our arrival. We rush up the stairs in strident steps, fly past a group of guests only to be held back at the entrance to the concert hall by the usher. We catch our breath and take a look back to see who else is waiting with us. Only now do I realise that this in fact the quartet, whose ranks have considerably changed over the past few months: Kamila Maslowska has been replaced by Anna Szulc-Kapala on Viola and Eunyoung Park has joined on Cello, filling the void left by the departure of Katarzyna Kamer. It has certainly not diminished the strengths of the ensemble, which immediately went on to win the Joseph Joachim Kammermusikwettbewerb this year, securing seminally important further funding as well as a CD recording in the foreseeable future.

The prize is not the first in their CV and even in times when the overcrowded award-market has notably reduced the significance of individual competitions, the Quarrel Quartet’s triumphs can be explained by a combination of factors which decidedly point towards a sustainable future: On stage, its members are as much a tightly operating unit with a forceful tutti-thrust and an electrifying romantic potential as they are a group composed of pronouncedly individual musicians: Magdalena Makowska comes across as the sensual heart of the quartet, especially in the lyrical passages which she plays with both eyes closed and her body stretched taught, rocking back and forth at the edge of her chair, always dangerously close to falling of and flat on her nose. Sat directly next to her, Karolina Weltrowska is all concentration, always on the listen to what her colleagues are up to, adding symbiotic harmonies and melodic warmth. Szulc-Kapala, meanwhile, seems to enjoy every second of the concert, as Park supports the action with a low-register thunderstorm, her fingers pacing up and down the body of her instrument, and her own body shuddering and shaking. There is a lot of smiling and the musicians are in constant eye contact with each other, coordinating their progress without words and confirming themselves of every step. It’s been some time that I last saw a classical performance as much in a group spirit as this one.

Just by watching them play, in fact, you’d expect this to be a sort of improvisational event. Bar by bar, the Quarrels edge towards the resolution of the compositions on the menu tonight, remaining as much “in the moment” as a Free Jazz combo on the fly. This creation of sustained tension archs, under which silent sounds and ardent acmes pass by like a nocturnally flowing river, is their speciality, regardless of whether they are returning to the romantic repertoire of the 19th century, time-travelling to the earliest days of the string quartet or powercycling through the maelstrom of the format’s contemporary emanations.

The Quarrel Quartet return to the source in a completely unforced way. While some of their colleagues are coming to complex conclusions through cerebral contemplation, their performance tonight proves that emotionally approximating a piece in the pure act of playing can yield even deeper results. Essence – the word makes sense here, because these compositions breathe naturally and organically again and even in her brief verbal introductions, Makowska sums up the soul of each work in few, but captivating words: Penderecki’s second string Quartet is announced (to a lot of anxious laughter) as “possibly not very beautiful but interesting” and Schubert’s “Der Tod und das Mädchen” as a pessimistic vision in the face of impending death.

The Penderecki piece, especially, is typical for their stance towards selecting material. There is no programmatic connection between its rhythmic firework, Heavy-Metal-esque full-throttle-strokes and undulating fields of microtonally pitchbent overtones and the more classical works. In fact, contrast seems to dominate their relationship. But even without rational justification, Penderecki’s challenging juxtapositions serve as a much-needed tonal explosion, both challenging and refreshing the senses before the fourpiece enters Schubert’s world of elegiac sadness and sombre elation, which they penetrate with plaintive precision, spending considerable time after each movement with allowing each note to die down and realising the anthemic intensity of the moodscape they have just created.

This spirited passion even continues through to how they receive the audience’s gratitude: The quartet, all dressed in black, appears to have as much fun sprinting out of the room and off the stage during applause as they enjoy being on it. Would they come back for more than just one encore of Brahms? You bet. On the other hand, it is probably a good thing that they end things right there, at the moment of greatest intensity, never allowing for the tension curve to drop. When we leave the hall, meanwhile, they are nowhere to be found, having magically disappeared into the dark streets of town, the silent screams of their instruments singing where the dam meets the sea. Wherever the musicians may be, however, thanks must go out for a most unexpected birthday present, which certainly left a mark.

Picture by Anette Daugardt

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Schloss vor Husum/Kulturamt und Stiftung Nordfriesland

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