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Apollon Musagète String Quartet at Library of Congress

By Stephen Brookes,

It’s hard not to like the Apollon Musagète String Quartet. It’s members are young, they’re hip, they have that ultra-cool name and they play with people like Tori Amos. So when this newly minted (and already much-admired) Polish ensemble appeared at the Library of Congress on Friday, it looked like the evening was going to be a blast.

It was — though maybe not always in the best sense. From the first brash, bright notes of Haydn’s Quartet in C Major, Op. 76, No. 3, Apollon made it clear it was there to power its way through the evening. Haydn can take that kind of treatment; there’s nothing fragile about his music, and the quartet’s punchy, turn-up-the-amps approach packed a lot of weight into the work. But much of what you look for in Haydn’s quartets — the subtle humor, the crisp interplay among the instruments, the perfectly calibrated dance of ideas — was often lost in the scrum, and you couldn’t help but feel a little battered by the end.

That was the tone throughout the evening: enthusiastic playing undermined by roughness, a tendency toward obvious phrasing and a kind of every-man-for-himself sense of ensemble. Exhilarating at times, it could also be maddening. The dark, complex lyricism of the Quartet No. 1 in C Major, Op. 37 by the Polish composer Karol Szymanowski, for instance, is rooted in the composer’s harrowing experiences during World War I, but it never really felt convincing — its tenderness milked for effect, its luminous pathos lost to forceful declamation.

But there was much in the evening to admire, as well. The “Meditation on the Old Czech Chorale ‘Saint Wenceslas,’ ” Op. 35a, by Czech composer Josef Suk came off beautifully, and Felix Mendelssohn’s Quartet No. 2 in A Minor, Op. 13, was full of life and color. Apollon may not be the most subtle quartet on the planet, but it plays with real vitality and excitement, which not every group can match. A few more years of seasoning, and it could be spectacular.

Brookes is a freelance writer.

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