No-one could accuse the Quatuor Danel of doing things by halves: having given a complete cycle of Mieczysław Weinberg’s String Quartets at Manchester University in January, it has now embarked on a two-year, eleven-recital series that is to encompass the Quartets by Weinberg and Dmitri Shostakovich (32 in all) on three continents. Tonight duly brought the first installment of the London 'leg', with an evening such as traced the beginnings in what promises to be an enterprising and, above all, rewarding series of recitals from an ensemble with a palpable affiliation for both composers.
Weinberg’s First Quartet (1937) sounds little like what was to follow. Yet within its overt indebtedness to Béla Bartók and Karol Szymanowski, the initial Allegro pursues a doggedly eventful course through some torturous chromatic harmonies and dense textures, while the central Andante evokes a tense and even ominous atmosphere enhanced by its being muted throughout. Only in the final Allegro does the future composer come to the fore – its driving rhythms and folk inflections as Weinbergian as the teasing evanescence of the closing bars. Now that Daniel Elphick's reconstruction of the original version has been heard publicly, the 1985 revision is more clearly one of 'less is more' as afforded by hindsight – which does not make this teenage effort, or the Danel's rendering of it, any less impressive.
A greater contrast could scarcely be imagined than with Shostakovich's First String Quartet (1938). Not only did this composer leave it relatively late until tackling the genre, but the result feels as understated a debut as could be imagined. Perhaps in its trying to ‘up’ the emotional ante the Danel sacrificed some of the opening movement's wistful elegance, but the ensuing variations on a Mussorgskian melody were ideally poised, with the quicksilver scherzo and rumbustious finale reinforcing the infectious charm as well as technical mastery of this unassuming piece.
Hopefully it will not be long until Weinberg’s Second String Quartet (1940) is held in equal regard. Written during the two years spent in Minsk (after fleeing a Poland overrun by Nazi forces), this has a 'back to basics' outlook evident in the opening Allegro's textural clarity and easy lyricism, if also a compositional flair as asserts itself in that movement's tensile development or combative coda. A 1987 revision saw the Andante become a more complex and imposing entity, its fraught central section intensifying the sombre expression either side, along with an extra movement. This wistfully elegant intermezzo is also an admirable foil to the energetic finale, its rondo format breezily traversed on route to the curtly decisive close. Here again the Danel was enviably in command of music transcending any 'apprenticeship' quality with ease.
Given such music and music-making, a programme of little more than an hour in length allowed Danel Quartet an additional few minutes in the guise of an Improvisation and Rondo that Weinberg wrote around 1950 but which have only recently been relocated. More is the pity, as the former was as affecting as the latter was appealing in its melodic directness. December 10 brings the second installment – Weinberg’s Third, framed by Shostakovich’s Second and Third, in a recital of altogether more epic proportions.