Quartets Among Us

Szymanowski String Quartet

Presented by SBMA. At First Methodist Church, Tuesday, March 7.

In a rare case of chamber music harmonic convergence, two stellar young string quartets passed through Santa Barbara last week, and on consecutive nights. The Belcea Quartet — resident quartet of London’s famed Wigmore Hall — descended on the Lobero on Monday, and the Szymanowski Quartet made its local debut at the First Methodist Church on Tuesday (presented as part of the dazzling chamber music series hosted by the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, whose auditorium is currently being renovated). The sum effect of these concerts confirmed a suspicion that something is very right with the string quartet world at the moment. No, they don’t make string quartets like they used to — they make ’em better. Both quartets are still fledglings — each about a decade old — and both are impressively solid, in terms of ensemble mission and musicality.

Founded in Warsaw, the Szymanowski Quartet is named after noted Polish composer Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937), whose second quartet (out of two written) was the most interesting and unusual stop on Tuesday’s program of composers’ final quartets, including those by Haydn (Quartet No. 2 in F, Opus 77) and Dvořák (Quartet No. 14 in A-flat). The quartet’s delivery of the easy-does-it modernism of their namesake amounted to the evening’s highlight. The musicians moved adeptly, with four-as-one cohesion, from muted mystery to gnarled tonalities suggesting a parallel Bartók, and on to a surprisingly neat ending.

Taken as a whole, last Tuesday’s program dutifully juggled elements along the historical timeline of string quartet writing. The quartet fared well with the moving, mature classicism of quartet pioneer Haydn, who both influenced and outlasted Mozart and ended his 80-plus quartet oeuvre just as Beethoven was finding himself. The mature Dvořák as represented by his last quartet is, of course, a crowd-pleaser, although to these ears, even his best writing tends to slosh about like so much late Romantic ear gravy.

Chamber music fares generally well in this church, as we’ve seen and heard in the Current Sounds series, which is hosted here, but as it is much larger and more reverberant than the intimate SBMA hall, the string quartet sound was less distinct and detailed than in that venue’s acoustic. Even so, the worshipful ambience of this space seems apt. Count the Szymanowski Quartet as one in a crowded field of young quartets doing all the right things, and playing with a bold artistry worth keeping tabs on.

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