Disciplined and Focused Performances by Olga Vinokur and the Martinů Quartet

18/03/2015

 Janáček, Schumann, Shostakovich: Olga Vinokur (piano), Martinů Quartet (Lubomír Havlák and Libor Kaňka [violins], Zbyněk Padourek [viola], Jitka Vlašánková [cello]), King’s Place, London, 15.3.2015 (CS)

Janáček – String Quartet No.1 (‘The Kreutzer Sonata’)
Shostakovich – Piano Quintet in G minor Op.57
Schumann – Piano Quintet in E flat Op.44

This was an extremely disciplined and focused performance of three masterpieces of the chamber music repertoire by the Martinů Quartet and pianist Olga Vinokur.

The Quartet began with Janáček’s first string quartet, emphasising the yearning quality of the work and eloquently balancing this lyricism with moments of agitation and intensity.  In this way, the players captured the passionate love, violent jealousy and tragic pathos of Tolstoy’s controversial novella, The Kreutzer Sonata, by which the quartet was inspired.

I was surprised at first, but won over, by the striking momentum and fluidity that the Martinů Quartet created at the start of the opening movement: the emphasis was certainly on con moto in this Adagio and while every detail was crisply delineated and vividly expressed, the composer’s fragmentary, small motifs became part of a larger organic entity.  The contrasting ideas – the initial terse three-note motif and the cello’s folk-like, jaunty melody – which repeatedly alternate and fluctuate were strongly integrated.  Subsequently, all interjections, however grainy or abrupt, seemed to move the music forward rather than draw attention to themselves.  The irregular rhythms and changing time signatures were thus assimilated within a general sense of excitement at the richness of the musical invention.

The Con moto was full of charm and quirkiness, each voice positing its own particular character as the lines slithered and leapt; the lithe fleetness of these animated sections made the homophonic crotchets statements still more affecting.  In the third movement, the players once again pushed through the material, the cool tremolo passages and glassy sul ponticello shimmers alternating with the richly expressive theme which is announced, in imitation, by the first violin and cello at the start.  The dynamics were expertly graded in the Vivo, ensuring that the marcato articulation never became abrasive.  And there was much impassioned expression too, conveyed with effortless virtuosity by leader Lubomír Havlák, which faded to tenderness in the viola’s beautiful closing sigh.  The recollection of the first movement material in the Con moto: Adagio was resonant and full, but the tension steadily increased during this mosaic of energetic patterns, building to a dramatic catharsis and closing with dignity.

The members of the Martinů Quartet were then joined by American-Russian pianist Olga Vinokur in Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet.  This work, composed during the summer of 1940, shortly before the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union which impelled Russia into World War II, is not one that I have heard frequently in the concert hall; but, from Vinokur’s strong rhetorical statements at the start of the Prelude: Lento, the language and sentiments felt familiar.  Vinokur’s polyphonic running lines were lucidly articulated – casting an eye ahead to the 1950-51 Preludes and Fugues for Piano – and throughout the Quintet she achieved a successful balance with the string players, listening with striking concentration, extending their melodies and blending with their trio and duet conversations.

Though the textures had the clarity of Baroque counterpoint, the string timbre in this opening movement was ‘Romantic’ and sumptuous, and the homophonic declarations resonated richly.

The second movement Fugue: Adagio began with a gentle, muted subject played by Havlák and second violinist Libor Kaňka; then their calm voices were joined by Jitka Vlašánková’s high cello, and gradually the imitative, searching lines unfolded, as the tessitura expanded, reaching a powerful lyrical climax before falling to quiet depths.  The Scherzo: Allegretto possessed the magic and grace of Mendelssohn, sparkling even in the most vigorous piano episodes; repeated string down bows were firmly underpinned by the piano’s left hand runs and rises.  Pizzicatos snapped crisply.

Havlák’s melody at the opening of the Intermezzo: Lento was silky of tone and imbued with expressive grace.  As the theme soared, his composure and sure leadership was notable; harmonics sung truly and even the quietest gestures were entrancingly crafted.  In this movement the pacing was superb, moments of reflection contrasting with episodes of growing intensity and passion.  The Finale: Allegretto re-established a lightness of spirit – and wit: according to Victor Seroff, Shostakovich’s biographer, one of its themes is a Russian tune traditionally played at the circus to welcome the arrival of the clowns!  The tranquil contemplations of the Intermezzo were, in this final movement, replaced by thunderous chordal passages alternating with whimsical musings.

Robert Schumann’s Piano Quintet is a much-loved chamber classic and it was played here with an ideal balance of vivacity and control.  Three years before the Quintet was composed in 1842, Schumann had written to his former composition teacher, Heinrich Dorn, ‘I often feel tempted to crush my piano — it is too narrow for my thoughts’, and certainly the piano writing overflows with ideas and challenges – particularly in the third movement Scherzo.  But Vinokur seemed untroubled by the work’s virtuosic trials.  The second movement was wonderfully ‘poetic’: the funeral march theme poignant but never lacking momentum or focus.  The first violin’s quaver upbeat was perfectly judged in weight and length.  The Agitato section provided thrilling contrast.  Turning his viola ever so slightly towards the audience, Zbyněk Padourek touchingly recalled the main theme; his playing was soulful and focused, just the right side of sentimental.  The double fugue of the Allegro ma non troppo swept away any intimations of darkness that might have clouded the opening of this final movement, and this wonderful quintet concluded in a spirit of grandeur and confident affirmation.

Claire Seymour

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