Every chef knows if you change one ingredient in a recipe, the result can be radically different. The same is true if you change one player in a chamber music ensemble. That happened Sunday with the Spokane String Quartet, and the result was a beautiful surprise.
Mateusz Wolski, new concertmaster of the Spokane Symphony, occupied the first chair of the quartet for the first time in Sunday’s performance at the Bing Crosby Theater. Sure enough, the quartet, with three-quarters of its members – violinist Tana Bland, violist Jeannette Wee-Yang and cellist Helen Byrne – unchanged, took on a new sound.
Wolski is Polish. Though his advanced training was in the United States, his tone and musical approach are very Central European – a richly suave sound with flexible and unhurried tempos and close attention to gradations of louds and softs. The quartet’s other members fell right in with that sound and spirit in performances of three standard quartets that were out of the ordinary.
The afternoon began with Schubert’s Quartet in A minor, often called the “Rosamunde Quartet” because of its use of a melody Schubert composed for a now-forgotten play by that name. This quartet exudes a melancholy that never quite goes away. It would have been easy to relive this gloom with some very fast tempos to brighten things up. But the performance Sunday allowed Schubert his sonorous melancholy with a kind of twilight ease. Wolski’s playing of the fast-note filigree in the finale, for instance, allowed the slower moving parts in the other three-instruments to sing out.
Dvorak’s familiar “American” Quartet seemed almost like an improvisation by a phenomenally skilled group of Bohemian musicians on ideas picked up in 19th-century America – spirituals, music from Plains Indians, even the sound of steam locomotives. Violists love this piece because Dvorak, himself a violist, gave the viola many of the quartet’s most beautiful moments. Wee-Yang, no wallflower in any circumstance, was in her element, as was cellist Byrne in the return of the slow movement’s main melody.
The concert concluded with Beethoven’s Quartet No. 9, the last of the three “Rasumovsky Quartets” written for the Russian ambassador in Vienna. Any Beethoven quartet presents a formidable challenge, and the “Rasumovsky” No. 3 contains demands both musical and technical that are worrisome to even veteran string quartets. Sunday’s ensemble had only worked with Wolski for a few weeks. But the result was simply stunning.
I was especially moved by the controlled intensity in the work’s lengthy Andante. But the Allegro molto finale was as electrically charged as a lightning storm and was met with “bravos” and hearty applause.
My lament for Sunday’s performance was its sparse audience. The Spokane String Quartet has gotten better every year of its 29 seasons. This season with Wolski promises exceptional performances.