More Delights as Joshua Bell and Friends Explore Czech Chamber Music


 Dvořák, Janáček, Smetana, Joshua Bell (violin), Pamela Frank (violin), Lawrence Power (viola), Steven Isserlis (cello) ,Jeremy Denk (piano), Wigmore Hall, London, 23.5.2015 (RB)

Dvořák – Miniatures (Romantic pieces) Op 75a
Janáček – Pohádka
Smetana – Piano Trio in G Minor Op 15
Dvořák – Piano Quintet No. 2 in A Major Op 81


All five of the performers at this recital are distinguished concert soloists in their own right so it was no surprise to see a packed Wigmore Hall and a queue of people at the box office waiting for returns.  It was the second of two concerts devoted to Czech chamber music. Click here to read a review of the earlier concert.

The concert opened with Dvořák’s four Romantic pieces which the composer wrote in 1887 when he was living with his family in Prague.  There are two versions of the pieces – one for two violins and viola and the other for piano and violin – and the ensemble elected to perform the former version.  It was written for an amateur violinist who was living with the family at the time and the composer worked to ensure the music was within the technical scope of amateurs.  Pamela Frank took the leading role while Bell and Power played the inner parts.  All the pieces were played with a high degree of technical finish and attention to detail and I particularly enjoyed the sense of pathos and repressed anguish which Frank injected into the final piece.

Denk and Isserlis then came to the fore to perform Janáček’s Pohádka which was originally written in 1910 and revised in 1923.  Pohádka is usually translated as ‘fairy tale’ and the piece is based on a poem by the Russian author Vasily Zhukovsky.  It features an enchanted lake, an imprisoned princess and a handsome prince, the evil undead Kaschei (who we know from Stravinsky’s Firebird) and a good, kindly magician.  The opening movement depicts the prince and princess meeting by rippling waters and Denk did an excellent job conveying the pastoral scene and in creating a seductive atmosphere.  Isserlis generated some extraordinary trenchant and guttural sounds to announce the arrival of Kaschei.  The opening of the second movement was airy and light and both soloists produced some nicely judged colour changes depicting the trials and tribulations faced by the two key protagonists.  The final movement provides the happy ending to our fairy tale and Isserlis brought an upbeat charm to the distinctive Czech melody.

Smetana’s Piano Trio in G Minor was the final piece in the first half of the concert which the composer wrote in 1855 after the death of his first daughter Fritzi.  Bell joined Denk and Isserlis for this work and the three of them really caught fire in this piece to give us a piece of world-class playing.  The opening movement is one of extremes and Bell played the opening lament in a powerful and arresting way before Denk took hold of the theme.  Isserlis’ handling of the second subject was serene and luminous and projected a sense of childlike innocence. (I note from his essay in the programme notes that he sees this as a particularly important quality in Czech music).  Denk brought out the brilliance of the passage-work while complementing the string players perfectly and the improvisation section in the middle of the movement was performed beautifully.  All three players expertly captured the spectral shadows of the scherzo while I enjoyed the distinctive café music charm which Bell brought to the first trio.  The final movement is a whirling tarantella which opened with dark darting shadows followed by a surge of energy – all three players made the most of the driving rhythms.  There was a glorious change of tone colour before the ebullient ending, which was dispatched in a thrilling and highly virtuosic way.

The final work in the programme was Dvořák’s wonderful A Major Piano Quintet – one of the great works of 19th Century chamber music.  Unusually, Isserlis was seated in the middle of the quintet while Power was on the right – I’m not quite sure what the reason was for this arrangement but it seemed to work well enough as the five of them succeeded in creating a nice blend of sound.  The opening broken chords on the piano were luminous while Isserlis allowed the beautiful melody to sing and breathe in a natural way.  This movement is one of dramatic contrasts and I loved the highly energised and committed way all five players approached the composer’s whirling passage-work.  I also enjoyed the manner in which Bell and Denk transformed the beautiful opening theme, giving it greater passion and breadth respectively.  The second movement is a Czech Dumka and here I liked the unaffected earthy quality Power brought to the opening melody which was nicely embroidered by Denk’s ethereal arabesques on the piano.  The various changes in tempo and mood were handled well and the quintet really captured the Bohemian spirit of the major-key episode.  The opening of the scherzo was feathery light and sprightly and Isserlis again brought out marvellously the childlike charm of the cello melody.  Occasionally, I would have liked Bell to bring out the brilliance of the first violin line a little more.  There was much to admire in the finale although I felt the opening was a little too calculated and would have welcomed a greater sense of exuberance and feisty high spirits.  The development of the material was handled superbly and I loved the final poetic interlude before the triumphant conclusion.

Overall, this was world-class playing that stands comparison with the very greatest performers.

Robert Beattie     

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