Dvorak, Quartet No 11 in C Op 61; Szymanowski, Quartet No 1 Opus 37; Gorecki, Quartet No 1 Op 62 ‘Already It Is Dusk’. Encore: Erwin Schulhoff, Alla Czeca (No 2 of Five Pieces for String Quartet).
The purpose and imagination of this ensemble stretch far beyond merely forming a string quartet, playing the classics and going by the name of its leader or maybe of a neglected composer from their home nation culture.
Stravinsky created a ballet Balanchine choreographed neo-classically. Its title is Apollon Musagète. Apollo is the ancient god of music and the title means ‘Apollo, director of the Muses’, and the three muses Apollo directs are those of poetry, rhetoric and dance.
It is one thing to have grand aspirations of this sort. It is another to deliver them. But the world will remain an unjust place of this Polish string quartet eventually perishes in obscurity, because deliver something special like this they palpably do, and they deserve to be recognised for this, alongside their riveting playing.
This is the second consecutive annual programme they have given in the Dome & Strings Attached Coffee Concert series and they will be wanted back for at least a third after a morning of high drama and emotion, not of the conventional Viennese, French or British worlds of string quartet but of Poland (Szymanowki and Gorecki) and the Czech nations (Dvorak of Bohemia, and Schulhoff, a Czech victim of the Nazi holocaust).
Poetry, rhetoric and dance are all to be found in the Apollon Musagète repertoire. And they happily turn conventions on their head. Instead of sitting, the non-cellists stand to perform. It enables them to dance it they wish. And two of them do. The cellist has little choice but to sit, but he plays in an irridescent mauve-backed waistcoat.
Unlike their declared inspiration Apollo, the ideal clean-shaven youth, all except the leader have facial hair. Which focuses special attention on beardless Pawel Zalejski, a remarkable violinist who is also their chief dancer, frequently going almost en pointe at peaks of his musicmaking. His occasional footstamp, as does that of a now famous collaborator with Poles, Nigel Kennedy, only heightens the sense spontenaiety and raw energy.
The top new Pole quartets seem to eschew the customary. and consequently excite and fascinate their audiences. The multi-coloured Szymanowski Quartet here in March did the same.
Apollon Musagète inverted programming orthodoxy. The most lengthy and/or substantial work, the four-movement Dvorak, came first, the more unusual works second. Non risk-taking programming would do the opposite. The unfamiliar would be in the first half when audience concentration and receptivity is supposed to be at its highest, and after the recovery period of the interval would allow Dvorak to charm, invigorate and send the audience away enchanted and enlivened.
Instead, the in-the-round audience went into the break to mix and chat in an already fulfilled and relaxed mood. And they came back to hear the Szymanowki and Gorecki − most of the listeners doing so certainly for the first time − much less intimidated by the unknown. Forearmed by Chris Darwin’s amiably educative programme notes, one of the bedrock features of the Coffee Concerts, they absorb the sensuality of Szymanowki and the unquiet stillnesses of Gorecki, to name but one characteristic of each’s colourful and uninhibited composing.
There was wild abandon in Szymanowksi’s finale and hyper-aggressive motor rhythms in the Gorecki that turn a string quartet into an acoustic heavy rock ensemble. And audiences now, with rock music in their own life soundtrack, are unfazed by this The Schulhoff encore flew us away into lunch with its searing vigour.
It’s two years since Apollon Musagète’s recognition year as BBC New Generation Artists and among their international concert-giving haunts is The Louvre, on whose Parisian concert posters, adorning the spiritual home city of Les Ballet Russes, their name must look especially apposite.
Sitting among this audience is the proper environment to see quartets in-the-making like this. The listeners are either acutely aware in advance, of what is on offer, or they are strongly receptive to it if not. They share their experience of the music among one other and are ever growing in dedication to this series, which in mid-season is now scaling heights.
Next up, on January 18, are the near consummate Heath Quartet in Wolf, Bartok and Beethoven (Italian Serenade, Quartet No 1 and Opus 131, respectively), with Nicholas Daniel bringing the Britten Oboe Quartet here on February 22 out of the Britten Sinfonia.
Each of these concerts seems to match its predecessor in the power and beauty of its experience. An audience member from Worthing, a choral singer attending her first Coffee Concert, brimmed with the excitement and a perception of the frisson, and left me in no doubt she would be back for the next.
The Coffee Concerts are at 11am on Sundays and the musicians meet the audience afterwards. See Heath Quartet in 2011 Coffee Concert action at http://new.livestream.com/brightondome/heathquartet/images/7855030