A Trio of Piano Quartets in Fine Performances

21/09/2016

Mahler, Schumann, and Brahms: Daniel Hope (violin), Paul Neubauer (viola), David Finckel (cello), Wu Han (piano). Wigmore Hall, London, 16.9.2016. (MB)

Mahler – Piano Quartet (movement) in A minor
Schumann – Piano Quartet in E-flat major, op.47
Brahms – Piano Quartet no.1 in G minor, op.25

Three piano quartet works for my first outing to the Wigmore Hall of the 2016-17 season: all in estimable performances, circling around and, in the second half, meeting the formidable figure of Brahms. Mahler’s early movement caught well in performance the slightly stifling atmosphere of a Brahmsian inheritance, even though written in the mid-1870s. Daniel Hope, Paul Neubauer, David Finckel, and Wu Han offered transparency too: one could always hear where the lines were going – and why. It never really sounded like Mahler, but it never does; indeed, it is difficult to imagine how it could. The movement is what it is, and I have always been greatly fond of it; I continued to be so on this occasion.

In Schumann’s E-flat major Quartet, the introduction to the first movement showed itself alert to Beethovenian precedent, soon flowering, at the opening of the exposition proper, into post-Schubertian mode. The path taken thereafter was inescapably ‘later’ – there was some splendidly dark, Romantic playing – but that context had been established, much to the music’s advantage. It is well-nigh impossible not to think of Mendelssohn when an elfin dance, such as we hear in the second movement, comes our way, but it was the differences, Schumann’s singularity, which – rightly – registered more strongly still. This was agile, directed playing, playing that yet yielded to Schumannesque volatility, neither overplayed nor unacknowledged. The Andante cantabile struck just the right note of a romance or intermezzo, its depths undeniable, yet unexaggerated. It might have flowed more easily at times, but that was partly a consequence of having taken the music with proper seriousness. The finale sounded ebullient yet poignant, in its knowledge that a Haydnesque conclusion was both desirable yet by now unattainable. And in that respect, above all, we looked – listened – forward to Brahms.

The first movement of Brahms’s G minor Quartet emerged in highly contrasted fashion. Occasionally, I wondered whether its contrasts were achieved at the expense of a stereotypically ‘organic’, Brahmsian line. The performance nevertheless always held the attention and led to such questioning in the first place. The moment of return seemed to me spot on, in Beethoven’s spirit, again without any need for underlining. Style grew out of idea in the Intermezzo; I could almost sense Schoenberg nodding approval. I loved the lilt of Han’s piano playing here. If there were times when I felt tension might have been more consistently upheld, I should not wish to exaggerate. Rich string tone announced the third movement: clearly for the players – as for us – the emotional centre of the work. It was not just a matter of a Brahmsian sound, though; rhythmic command proved crucial too. This was an involved, yet never convoluted, performance. Rhythm is overtly crucial, of course, in the finale, but other elements are just as important to the success of a performance. Here they shone through admirably, melodic and harmonic concerns very much to the fore too. Perhaps the performance veered a little close to the episodic at times, but the movement’s spirit was captured with great success – and not a little virtuosic intensity.

Mark Berry

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