Skampa Quartet / Bittova, Wigmore Hall, London <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fivestar -->

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The Independent Culture

Such is London concert life that within the space of a week not one but two Czech vocal stars turn up to perform. Magdalena Kozena and Iva Bittova come from the same stable: the Brno Conservatory. Bittova's career has taken a different path but there are similarities, in particular astonishing purity of pitch and dramatic involvement in every aspect of vocal delivery. But Bittova in the classical concert hall is a rarity.

In the Wigmore Hall's programme, she is described as "a Czech avant-garde violinist and singer who has synthesised the classic folk and gypsy music of the tiny Moravian villages where she grew up..." This may factually be true but did little to prepare a Wigmore audience for such uniqueness of personality, let alone talent.

This was a marvellously planned programme. Wigmore regulars had poured in to greet their one-time residents, the Skampa Quartet. The first half was Janacek's two string quartets. Blistering might be the overall description of how the Skampas played. This was not polite chamber music playing. Every nuance, every colour - from warm, soothing tone to terrifying rasping sul ponticello, with the widest of dynamic range, was delivered with white-hot energy. This is scarcely music of the concert hall; the distinction between art music and folk music narrowed to a whisker.

The second half was Bittova's. Emerging in the dim light from the back of the hall clutching a violin, her strong, raucous solo voice of such true pitch caused acoustic buzzing in the ears. In an improvisation involving extraordinary vocalisations including ululating, she also made evident that she is no slouch on the violin. But it was in Janacek's Moravian Folk Poetry in Songs with the Skampa Quartet that her cross-over talent shone through as utterly exceptional.

Janacek, like fellow East Europeans Bartok and Kodaly, collected and was deeply influenced by folk tradition. He made simple piano accompaniments to the songs, eschewing a wider instrumental palette. A chance meeting between Vladimir Godar and Bittova led to Godar transcribing the songs for voice and string quartet which were then arranged by Bittova and the Skampa Quartet. The result is enchanting. Bittova is an extraordinary story-teller. "Gnats' Wedding" was sensational. The audience went wild.

Fortunately, it's all to be heard on a Supraphon CD.

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