Review: Chamberfest concert features Polish pizzazz and top notch Canadian consistency

Apollon Musagète Quartette is: violinists Pawel Zalejski and Bartosz Zachlod; violist Piotr Szumiel and cellist Piotr Skweres.

Monday night’s Chamberfest concert at the Carleton Dominion Chalmers Centre featured Poland’s Apollon Musagète quartet.

This young, all-male ensemble — violinists Pawel Zalejski and Bartosz Zachlod; violist Piotr Szumiel and cellist Piotr Skweres — favours an on-stage uniform of bespoke plaid suits, patent leather shoes, and crystal cufflinks designed to catch the light as they bow. It’s a dandyish, preening presentation that mirrors the quartet’s interpretive style: bold, stylish, and arrestingly modern, but sometimes in need of a more subtle touch.

Of the three works on the program, the opening Haydn Lark quartet (Op. 64 no.5) was least suited to the ensemble’s flash and in-your-face energy. The first movement needed a more refined dynamic palette, while the delicate, soaring first violin line in the Adagio was crushed under the weight of the three other musicians. The playing wasn’t always that tidy either; instead, speed and aggressive accents created the illusion of crispness. 

The continuously impressive Charles Richard-Hamelin. Photo: Elizabeth Delage

In contrast, the four players gave Pendercki’s String Quartet no. 3 a masterful, organic and infinitely nuanced performance. The Polish composer wrote this work for the Shanghai Quartet in 2008; subtitled Leaves from an unwritten diary; it unfurls in a single movement divided into distinct sections united by a recurrent, obsessive, Mephisto waltz theme. Here the four players’ individual virtuosity was brought to the forefront, and their focused, almost fanatically detailed reading carried large measures of passion and gravitas. 

The continuously impressive Quebec pianist Charles Richard-Hamelin joined the string quartet in the second half for Dvořák’s A Major Piano Quintet. Richard-Hamelin performed Beethoven violin sonatas in Ottawa just over a week ago with Montreal Symphony concertmaster Andrew Wan. He is in every sense Mr. Consistency — calm and reliably first-class — no matter the repertoire, but temperamentally, Eastern European composers have become something of his specialty. 

Richard-Hamelin produced gorgeous, full, richly coloured tones and singing legato. He’s a powerhouse pianist but in chamber music, his sense balance is miraculously always in the pocket — never too loud or too quiet. The quartet responded in kind, playing with deep, swirling currents of Slavic lyricism, the melancholic Dumka slow movement painted in broad strokes of forest green and indigo. The sunny, rollicking finale brought the house — which was nowhere near full — instantly to its feet.

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Natasha Gauthier has been covering classical music in Canada and the US for more than 20 years. She was the classical critic at the Ottawa Citizen, and was one of the founding critics of Montreal's HOUR Magazine. She has served on the classical music and dance juries for the Governor General's Performing Arts Awards. You can also read her at her blog, Natasha has a BA in Journalism from Concordia University.