REVIEW: Szymanovski Quartet: Andrej Bielow, Grzegorz Katów (violins), Vladimir Mykytha (viola), Marcin Sieniawski (cello) - Coffee Concert at The Dome/Corn Exchange, Brighton on Sunday March 16 2014

We often go to concerts knowing which music we’ll like and which still needs to persuade us of its virtues. Some 20th Century string quartet repertoire falls into the second category but listeners at the Coffee Concerts are repeatedly taken aback - then exhilarated – then even converted - by hearing it in the flesh.

Experiencing it live gives you the best chance of the kind of experience you’re paying your good money for at the door. The Coffee Concerts sometimes include music of the 1900s and place it as the second item, preceding the interval – when you can, of course, discuss and share your reaction with someone else. And that’s part of the fun of concert-going.

On the programme first, to warm you up and clear the earwaves, there’s maybe a work from a familiar composer. Then can come Britten or Tippett, for instance, and music you’d possibly struggle to enjoy when only half attending, say, to a radio broadcast. But at a Coffee Concert with nothing between you and the musicians but a yard or few of air, and no one to interrupt you to ask you to answer the phone or make them a cup of tea, you’re ready to give the music your full attention and capitalise.

Britten blew us away last season, Tippett likewise this, and on Sunday morning the Polish composer Szymanovski joined the list with his 2nd quartet of Opus 56.

Here at Coffee Concerts it’s an experience of total immediacy. We’re seated on all four sides of the quartet, who each face each other placed on the four sides of a square. You can hear them breathing, you can watch them watching each other, playing together, feeding off one another’s playing. This is surely a driving reason why this series has steadily sold out through most of the current season − which ended with this concert.

Quartet ensembles are the sum of their four parts. Sometimes they look the same, this time they didn’t. The Szymanovski comprised three beards and one cleanshaven chin, shirts of four different colours and styles, dark jackets of four different shapes, the same for their well-worn shoes, three manes of hair in varying lengths and one bald pate, one patterned chin kerchief, one coloured handkerchief in a breast pocket – and four different, fascinating and engaging personalities and stage presence.

Each projected his performance individually. Each threw himself fully into it. Four troopers with a track record in medals and honours to prove it since formation 19 years ago in Warsaw. Their Services to Polish Culture were marked seven years ago and before they came along no string quartet had been good enough to win the Karol Szymanovski Foundation’s Award. In 2007 they were, and it wasn’t just because they nicked the name of their compatriot composer.

So accomplished are they that (extremely rare, this, in performance) two different violinists took a turn at playing as the leader. Grzegorz Kotów, he of the sole pate, fronted Haydn’s B minor Quartet, the first of Opus 33. Andrej Bielow led in the Szymanovski and later the fuller-lengthed Dvorak in G Opus 106 that followed the interval. So enraptured were the audience that there was an encore: the quartet arrangement of the emotional, commemorative and strikingly direct Melody by Myroslav Skoryk, of Ukraine.

The benefit of Haydn starting off a Coffee Concert is that as founder/father/inventor/perfector of the string quartet medium, whatever music that comes after him can be measured by the listener in terms of where it travels in invention and innovation beyond the great Austrian classical master’s work. Kotów gave themes character and was mindful of classical style in a way that awakened and alerted the ear.

Bielow revelled in the high-end top-string regions he was sent to by Szymanovski and Dvorak. The Szymanovski was another example, like Bartok or Janacek, where folk tune material ignites the music rhythmically and harmonically with an acuteness that hits home in live experience and leaves a timid listener wondering why they ever felt so fearful of the prospect. If more of us visited central and eastern Europe and heard their folk music at first hand, and their emotional commitment, we’d only be a fraction daunted by the prospect.

The generously substantial and ever-varying Dvorak, satisfyingly rounded off another remarkably expanding Coffee Concert Series. The next season dates are October 26, November 16, December 14 (treat a friend for Xmas), January 18, February 2, March 15. Details to be announced; ages 8-25 go free. Plan your holidays around them.

There’s a special launch presented by Strings Attached (Coffee Concert co-promoters of The Dome). It is at 7.30 on September 12 at the Old Market, Hove. The Cavaleri String Quartet play works with Brighton connections – Vaughan Williams No 2, Jonathan Harvey No 3, Frank Bridge No 3; £15 or again FOC if 8-25.

Richard Amey