Izabella Szałaj-Zimak - 1st violin
Elwira Przybyłowska - 2nd violin
Paweł Czarny - viola
Michał Pepol - cello
20 years of joint music-making, 17 internationally acclaimed records, six-time nominees and twice winners of the ‘Fryderyk’ award, concerts given on all continents and a loyal audience. What’s more, 15 years of the Kwartesencja festival, which brings together musicians who, in their ambitious undertaking, know no genre constraints.
Today, the Royal String Quartet is a world-recognized brand. Witnessing their exuberance, artistic ingenuity, penchant for exploration and openness to new challenges, it is hard to believe they have been performing together for so many years. ‘While playing we look for extreme emotions in ourselves’, declare the members of the ensemble. In the quartet’s interpretations critics find a multitude of vivid ‘textures and colours, supported by the insightful knowledge of the musical construction’ (BBC Music Magazine). Their rendition is ‘confident and energetic, characterized by a vast array of dynamics and timbres, with carefully planned, surprising twists’ (Gramophone).
While still students, they came to London to participate in master classes held by the Amadeus Quartet and longingly looked at the chamber musicians’ mecca – Wigmore Hall. Today they can pride themselves on as many as fifteen recitals at this venue. Working on their sound and diligently practising quartet literature classics, they did not suppose they would soon become experts in 20th and 21st century music. In 1998, when they were establishing the quartet at Warsaw Academy of Music, they probably did not suspect that shortly the would combine the classical quartet sound with song, folk, jazz or even club music, while the list of their achievements and successes might be shared by a few more string quartets.
Technical precision, clarity of the musical form and impeccable style are the foundations, on which the Royal String Quartet have been building their reputation. Apart from the Amadeus Quartet, they owe the most to the Alban Berg Quartet (post-graduate studies in Cologne, 2001–2004), the Camerata Quartet and Ryszard Duź from the Wilanów Quartet. Hard work and obtained skills resulted in a series of awards, among others, in Casale Monferato (Italy), Cracow, Kuhmo (Finland) and at the renowned Banff competition. The RSQ were recipients of the Borletti-Buitoni trust award ‘for outstanding musicians on the threshold of their career’ and a Special Award of the Minister of Culture and National Heritage ‘in recognition of contributions to the Polish culture’, while in 2007 the ensemble was nominated for the prestigious Royal Philharmonic Society award.
The sound of the quartet was brought to music lovers from all over the world thanks to their cooperation with BBC: in the years 2004–2006 the ensemble was included in the elite New Generation Artist scheme, which resulted in numerous performances, recordings (part of which, released on CDs, was attached to the BBC Music Magazine) and radio broadcasts. Since then the quartet’s concerts can be regularly heard on Polish Radio 2, BBC 3 and many other radio stations. The RSQ recitals are broadcast by Mezzo TV and TVP Kultura. A special concert performed for Queen Elizabeth II played a significant role in building the quartet’s reputation. Since then, the word ‘royal’ in the ensemble’s name, which, according to its members, was chosen at random, gained quite a new meaning…
The quartet is much appreciated at major world festivals. They have performed five times at the BBC Proms, but also at the City of London Festival, Aldeburgh Festival, West Cork Music in Ireland, Schleswig Holstein and Rheingau Festival in Germany, Ludwig van Beethoven Easter Festival in Warsaw, Sacrum Profanum in Cracow, Wratislavia Cantans in Wrocław and at the Australian Perth International Arts Festival. Apart from Wigmore Hall, the quartet gave recitals at London Cadogan Hall, Amsterdam Concertgebouw, Manchester Bridgewater Hall, National Gallery of Art, Phillips Collection and Smithsonian Institute in Washington (performing on the set of Antonio Stradivari's instruments), Studio 104 at Paris Maison de la Radio, Le Grand Theatre in Bordeaux, Martinů hall in Prague, Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, Konzerthaus in Vienna and Berlin, Sejong Center in Seoul, Beijing Concert Hall, Stockholm Konserthuset as well as Witold Lutosławski Concert Studio, seats of the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra in Katowice and the Warsaw Philharmonic.
In 2008 the quartet’s achievements resulted in starting collaboration with Hyperion Records. The RSQ has become one of the leading ambassadors of the Polish culture. They have recorded 5 albums with quartets by Karol Szymanowski and Ludomir Różycki (premiere recording), complete string quartets by Henryk Mikołaj Górecki, Krzysztof Penderecki and Witold Lutosławski, as well as works by Paweł Szymański and Paweł Mykietyn. Recently they have been commissioned by the Label to record pieces by the British classicist of modernity – James MacMillan (2018). The ensemble’s recordings have been highly acclaimed by critics – Gramophone Magazine (Editor’s Choice), BBC Music Magazine (Disc of the Month), Diapason and The Strad.
The quartet is a passionate follower of achievements by avant-garde composers of young generation. They are fully involved in working on new pieces, learning unconventional techniques and undertaking unusual tasks (acting ones included!). This has resulted in, among other things, releasing a DVD Liminal Studies with audio-visual compositions by Wojtek Blecharz and a CD Umbrae with quartets by Andrzej Kwieciński (Bôłt Records 2017). The quartet has twice received the ‘Fryderyk’ award by the Polish Phonographic Academy for their records released by DUX and BeArTon labels.
Among musicians who have become the quartet’s artistic friends are the finest instrumentalists and singers, such as Angela Hewitt, Sir Thomas Allen, Mark Padmore, Urszula Kryger, Stephen Kovacevich, Janusz Olejniczak, Martin Fröst, Ingolf Wunder, Maciej Frąckiewicz, Marcin Zdunik Andrzej Bauer, Łukasz Kuropaczewski, Wojciech Świtała, Škampa, Śląski and Kwadrofonik quartets.
The desire to overcome classical conventions, seeking new forms of expression and the need to reach further than the philharmonic audience led to unique meetings with artists inhabiting completely different corners of the music scene. It is worth noting that the album Kayah & Royal Quartet (Kayax/Agora 2010) gained wide acclaim and was awarded a Gold Record. Another non-classical project was a theatrical undertaking Nowa Warszawa – a song recital about the capital city, refinely arranged by Bartek Wąsik and sung by Stanisława Celińska (Nowy Teatr 2012).
In 2004 the RSQ created their own festival – Kwartesencja. Today it is one of the most important music events in Warsaw, which recalls great classics of chamber music, but, first and foremost, proves that music does not have to be a cliché dressed up in a tailcoat, but an interesting, surprising, oftentimes uncanny art of sounds, which brilliantly describes the modern world. It was during the Kwartesencja festival when works by Paweł Szymański, Wojciech Blecharz, Andrzej Kwieciński, Zygmunt Konieczny, Marcin Stańczyk, composed especially for the RSQ, were given their world premiere.
For many years now the RSQ have been sharing their knowledge and experience with younger chamber musicians. In the years 2012–2015 they were Quartet-In-Residence at Belfast’s Queen’s University. For the last 10 years they have remained faithful to their master classes in Rybna, and, on a regular basis, teach at Chopin University of Music and Warsaw music schools.
Openness, the will to experiment and an incessant search for their own artistic truth cause that the Royal String Quartet does not lose momentum, not to mention falling into routine. ‘After 20 years of working together we still don’t know everything about one another’, say its members. That is why they manage to continuously surprise their audience and themselves alike.