Thursday, July 2, 2015

It was a pleasure to have the Penderecki Quartet back after an absence of several summers. The group had been a welcome presence for a number of years, when it was rotated out to make way for other notable quartets.
This time around, the cellist, Katie Schlaikjer, is new, but otherwise the lineup that took to the Auer Hall stage Tuesday evening was familiar: violinists Jerzy Kaplanek and Jeremy Bell and violist Christine Vlajk. So, once the program began, were the performance qualities of this veteran ensemble, marking its 28th season. Both in technique and in artistic temperament, these musicians feed on one another. They’ve long ago coalesced into an instrumental choir, with the individual voices clearly heard and yet singing, playing as one.

Tuesday’s program spanned three centuries, moving from Bedrich Smetana’s autobiographical E Minor String Quartet Number 1 (“From My Life”), a product of the 19th century, to Krzysztof Penderecki’s Quartet Number 3 (“Leaves of an Unwritten Diary”), written in the 21st, and the Dmitri Shostakovich Piano Quintet in C, dated 1940. For the Shostakovich, the always glad-to-have-back Dutch pianist Jeannette Koekkoek joined the Penderecki four.
Not only did the music’s centuries of origin vary, but so did the styles employed by three composers of very different personalities and life experiences. But an evening of happy music this wasn’t. The early movements of Smetana’s “From My Life” quartet, programmed to reflect his life, do offer themes that the composer said recalled his youth, the joy he took in dancing, and his first love, but the tragedy of his oncoming deafness had an impact that increasingly added somber colors to the score. Tuesday’s performance painted all the layers, down to a pervasive melancholy.

Melancholy continued in Penderecki’s single-movement quartet, a piece less avant-garde than the two quartets he wrote back in the 1960s. Those were angrier, more ferocious. The Number 3 makes its case in quieter fashion. Contemporary it is, definitely a product of our time, but by a composer who has matured 40 years since the earlier scores and here has used his techniques in behalf of calmer substance and goal. Thorny the music still can be for musicians, not, however, for the Penderecki Quartet’s musicians; they solved all the technical difficulties in a brilliant reading.

The five-movement Shostakovich quintet certainly contains plenty of melancholy, in the first two movements, Prelude and Fugue, played without pause, and, again, the final two movements, Intermezzo and Finale, also played together. The middle movement, a Scherzo, is a totally different animal, a boisterous, rhythmically aggressive, athletic interlude that belongs in the circus, as the clowns take over. Pianist Koekkoek led the way through the frolicsome and the sad. Her partners blended right in to shape an emotionally charged performance that earned and won the musicians a vociferous standing ovation.

– Peter Jacobi H-T Reviewer


Ottawa:, March 17,2015

There’s nothing quite as vibrant or intense as a live performance – as you could see from the transfixed faces of the audience at the NAC Fourth Stage on Saturday.

On stage were two ensembles featuring Canadian jazz musicians. Guitarist Mike Rud and vocalist Sienna Dahlen opened the show as a duo; they were followed by pianist David Braid with the Penderecki String Quartet. Although they played very different material, both groups quickly captured the audience’s interest and were warmly applauded throughout. [ Read full review… ]

– Alayne McGregor


Toronto: theWholeNote – Editor’s Corner, December 1, 2014

If there’s one genre I like above all others it is the string quartet, and it doesn’t get any better than late Beethoven. This is not to say it doesn’t get as good as that in for instance Bartók and Shostakovich, just that Beethoven is hard to beat. So it was with pleasant anticipation that I took up the latest release from the Penderecki String Quartet – Beethoven String Quartets Opp.132 & 135 (Marquis MAR 81449).

There is of course no shortage of recordings of Beethoven’s quartets; a quick search of the Atelier Grigorian website resulted in 95 to choose from, including complete cycles of all 16 by most of the major quartets of the 20th and 21st century. In a strange way this is why it is in a sense refreshing to have a single release from one of Canada’s premiere ensembles, encouraging focus on just a couple of great works rather than immersion in an entire oeuvre. These final two offerings (although as the liner note points out No.15, Op.132 was in fact composed before No.13, Op.130) stand alone in the canon and are surprisingly different from each other. Op.132 in A minor is extremely dark, but never lugubrious, over most of its 45 minutes, with a central Molto Adagio-Andante movement lasting more than a quarter of an hour. A stately, but at times still mysterious Alla Marcia provides a bridge to the uplifting Molto appassionato; Presto finale providing light at the end of the tunnel. The final quartet in F major, is relatively light-hearted with its Allegretto opening and scherzo-like Vivace second movement in which, in the words of annotator Jan Narveson, “the lower three instruments play the same slightly mad figure over and over (48 times!) while the first violin cavorts insanely above them.” A darker Lento assai is then followed by a finale that starts out Grave with Beethoven’s own question “Must it be?” but soon resolves into a sunny and ebullient response: “It must be!”

The Penderecki Quartet is in fine form throughout, with its nuanced inflections capturing the various moods of these mighty works. This release confirms that the PSQ is as at home in the standard repertoire as it is in the realm of the modern and contemporary where they are most often found. Known for their interpretations of such modern masters as Szymanowski, Bartók, Lutosławski and their namesake, the quartet also champions the work of Canadian composers including Harry Freedman, Alice Ho, Gilles Tremblay, Piotr Grella-Możejko, Glenn Buhr and Marjan Mozetich to name a few. The PSQ website lists 30 CD titles (some unfortunately out of print) including half a dozen on the Centrediscs label, as testimony to its myriad activities since being founded in Poland in 1986 (where it won the Penderecki Prize at the National Chamber Music Competition in Lódz, and with that the right to use the composer’s name). The PSQ has been in residence at Wilfrid Laurier University since 1991 and an integral part of creative life in Southern Ontario throughout the past two decades.

– David Olds


New York City:    New York Classical Review, October 27, 2013

“Penderecki’s String Quartet No.3, played by the Penderecki Quartet, was written in 2008. It’s an admirable composition that reveals itself slowly, doling out scattered information that eventual coheres into a magnificent whole. It goes through four distinct stylistic ideas in the first few pages, seeming to play with discontinuity. But then earlier elements return, like a march rhythm that consistently starts then abruptly stops. There’s a lyrical center, with a melody that comes out of folk music, and it ends with something like puzzled lamentation. The composer described some of the music to the audience as coming out of his memories of his father playing the violin many years ago.   The musicians — Jeremy Bell and Jerzy Kaplanek, violins, Christine Vlajk, viola and Katie Schlaikjer, cello — played the piece with discipline and intelligence. They stuck with the elusive form without hinting at the future, the key conception in the music. ”

– George Grella


Bloomington, Indiana:  Herald Times, June 25, 2012

“After so many impressive concerts given across a decade of summers, expectations are high whenever the Penderecki Quartet makes another appearance in Bloomington.  Well, when it did on Thursday evening in a filled Auer Hall, there was no disappointment.   The four musicians had been chosen to open a six-concert series shared by four different ensembles covering the entire cycle of Beethoven String Quartets.   And they had truly come to play.   Their sense of unity both technically and emotionally was exceptional, seamless in the mechanics, of single mind and purpose in approach, that being to not merely master the music but serve it, not to impose will but to accept what Beethoven seemed to be saying to them.   For all the passion put into their readings, one did not sense overreach or overstress but, rather, a comfort with the artistic decisions made.   Thursday’s fare covered early Beethoven, the Op.15, No.5, and late, the 135 and 127.   Sensitively projected by the Penderecki, listeners were able to discern strong contrasts between the quartet written by a hyper-energetic young composer and those created by an older one trapped in deafness.  Throughout the evening, the Penderecki shaped excitement and communicated honesty.  They remained loyal to Beethoven.”

-Peter Jacobi


Cleveland, Ohio:  The Plain Dealer, April 19, 2011

“Schulhoff’s brainstorm received a performance of searing intensity and charm by the Penderecki, which was founded in 1986 in Poland.   Now based in Canada, the ensemble plays with remarkable unity, polish and expressive flexibility.   Like many quartets, the Penderecki alternates first and second violins.   In the Schulhoff, Jeremy Bell was the fearless and eloquent first violinist, collaborating seamlessly with violinist Jerzy Kaplanek, violist Christine Vlajk and cellist Jacob Braun.    The same complement applied impassioned and poetic vibrancy to Dvorak’s String Quartet No.13.   The Penderecki matched Dvorak’s hearty spirit with generosity of phrasing and nuance.   In the slow movement, the ensemble emphasized the contrasts between tenderness and vehemence.   The furious dance that ends the work found the players in crisp, exuberant form”

– Donald Rosenberg


Napa, California:  Napa Valley Register, November 10, 2010

“Haydn’s late quartets have much the same expansiveness and depth as his symphonies.   The Penderecki succeeded in conveying both the intimacy and sense of scale of his seldom-heard work.  There was a sense of spontaneity as well as genuine breadth in the performance.   I am sure the rapt audience felt Haydn’s spirit hovered over the splendid music-making.  Bartok’s musical language, so closely tied to his native Hungarian idiom, seems to come to the Penderecki players naturally.   They handled his complicated, constantly changing rhythms with consummate ease and brought out the character and the wildly contrasting moods and emotions of the music with deeply felt expressiveness.   Beethoven wrote his Quartet in A minor, Op.132 on recovering from a serious illness that he had feared was fatal.   The slow movement, “Heiliger Dankgesang”, inspired the Penderecki to a performance of considerable depth, matching the composition’s meticulousness and intensity.  They offered a both energetic and sensitive interpretation rolled into one.   Their “Heiliger Dankgesang” was ibued with joy.”

– L. Pierce Carson


Ann Arbor, Michigan,, 2007

“Exceptional sets of Bela Bartok’s landmark String Quartets (6) are rare, even though most of hte world’s leading string quartets have applied their skills to record them, some several times.   The Penderecki String Quartet has only one to offer, but it is decidedly competitive among the finest recordings.  These are passionate, physical readings that have a broad emotional sweep and an acute precision that more than make up for a few incidental problems.   There are pitfalls aplenty in these virtuosic works, but this tight ensemble acquits itself admirably on virtually all technical points.   More importantly though, the group gets Bartok’s expressions right, from the melancholy, yearning, and vigor of the early quartets to the caustic wit and pensiveness of the later works.   Furthermore, in all there is a strong ethnic pulse that is played up to great effect.   The Penderecki String Quartet has made a vital contribution to the discography, and listeners in search of a worthwhile rendition should try this one for its many merits.”  (4.5 star rating)

-Blair Sanderson