Spontaneity and Style from the Razumovsky Ensemble

08/06/2017

J.S. Bach, Beethoven, Schubert: Razumovsky Ensemble (Kolja Blacher & Jan Schmolck [violin], Andriy Viytovych [viola], Olega Kogan & Alexander Chaushian [cello]), Wigmore Hall, London, 6.6.2017. (CS)

J.S. Bach – Sonata No.1 in G minor for solo violin BWV1001
Beethoven – String Trio in C minor Op.9 No.3
Schubert – String Quintet in C major D.956

For amateur musicians, chamber music provides a wonderful opportunity for individuals simply to come together and play together.  But, professional ensembles strive for more: the individual voices must fuse, becoming the voice of a single organism.  It’s not uncommon for string quartets and other ensembles to play together for many years: the musical partners learn to watch, read and respond to each other, making, conscious and unconscious adjustments, seamlessly and naturally.

The Razumovsky Ensemble is a bit different.  Founded by cellist Oleg Kogan in 1996, the Ensemble comprises musicians – esteemed soloists and orchestral players, who share a passion for chamber music – who are invited by Kogan to perform programmes which enable them to share their musical values and expressive concerns with each other and with public audiences.  As this programme at the Wigmore Hall confirmed, this convergence of musical experience and freshness of conversation results in interpretations and performances which are rooted in technical excellence and invigorated by spontaneity.  Perhaps the instinctive empathy and ‘perfect polish’ that comes with the familiarity of years will inevitably be lacking, f only to a small degree; but alertness, inventiveness and responsiveness are more than compensation when the playing reaches such levels of excellence.

Violinist Kolja Blacher took a ‘no nonsense’ approach to Bach’s G minor sonata for solo violin; tempos were swift, the bowing was powerful, the ‘attack’ strong.  This was certainly an authoritative account but, I have to confess, this isn’t the way I like my Bach.  A little more time and space in the Adagio would have sharpened the clarity of the line-voicing, allowing the ‘bass lines’ to carry and resonate, giving more definition to the harmonic progressions and melodic phrasing, and, by enabling the dissonances to linger, imbuing the whole movement with greater expressive weight.  I longed for more flexibility, and the splitting of the final chord into two bow strokes created, for this listener at least, unnecessary restlessness at the close.

The Fuga was exciting and powerful, animated by strong dynamic contrasts: the pianissimo retreats were bewitchingly introspective.  During the Siciliana I found myself wishing that the music had more space to breathe, though; there was little sense of the ‘dance’ and, more than this, the ‘vocal’ quality of the melody was missing.  Blacher found his niche in the Gigue which flashed with brilliance, the semiquavers spinning seamlessly and with a bright sheen.

Blacher was joined by Kogan and viola player Andriy Vivtovych, currently principal viola of the Royal Opera House Orchestra, for Beethoven’s C minor trio.  Striking changes of colour – passionate sforzandos followed by a withdrawal of the sound to a dry, sinister pianissimo – matched the rhythmic rhetoric in the Allegro con spirito.  Beethoven enriches the texture with multiple-stopped chords and the intonation was sure throughout the busy development section.  The rapid interplay between the voices created an atmosphere of darkness and anxiety: the semiquaver hastening was sustained, transferred between the voices, around which vibrant conversations between varying pairs of instruments ensued.  The intensity with which the players were listening and responding to each other was palpable.

The eloquence and grace of the Adagio con espressione survived (just) an onslaught of intrusive coughing from Wigmore Hall patrons.  The solemnness conjured by the violin’s rapid sweeping ascents was countered by the major tonality and the gentle rocking of the cello, but as the movement progressed there was a growing air of expanse and freedom which built to a surprisingly angry climax.  The Scherzo was an impassioned romp,whose energised rhythms refused to let the hypothetical dancer’s feet settle, though the more homophonic Trio, underpinned by Kogan’s warm bass line, provided some comforting respite.  A sweet-toned opening to the Presto quickly acquired an agitated air, and again the strong definition of the cello line did much to imbue the movement with a propelling passion, which blew itself out in the delightful, vanishing final cadence.

Supplemented by violinist Jan Schmolck and cellist Alexander Chaushian, the Razumovsky presented Schubert’s String Quintet in C in the second half of the concert.  The opening of the Allegro ma non troppo was full of tension: there was a blossoming of warmth as colour seeped in, through the focused crescendo, then faded elegiacally.  The first subject was notable for the rhythmic incisiveness which was employed to define the structure and build towards a second subject which seemed to ‘float’ on the airy pizzicatos below; when reprised in the recapitulation, this transition had even more urgency, making the subsequent tenderness of the theme even more touching.  Throughout there was a strong sense of direction; rhetoric and drama were effective balanced with melodic joy, and small gestures spoke with expressive weight.  This was a democratic presentation; Blacher led with lyrical confidence but there was an equality of parts.

I felt that the Adagio took a little while to settle and never quite found its ‘poetry’.  I found the overall tone quite ‘dry’, and the second cello’s pizzicato too ‘hard’ throughout – percussive rather than harmonic – and at times quite aggressive, while in general there seemed to be undue emphasis on details at the expense of continuity of phrasing.  But, there was real turbulence in the central episodes and passionate climaxes were effectively contrasted with passages where the vibrato was quelled, which intensified the expressive impact of Schubert’s dissonances.  The Scherzo fired off with a wonderfully robust ‘peasant’ drone, gruff and unapologetic, and the whole movement felt as if it were fired by an electric impulse that could explode at any moment.  The Allegretto initially conjured a vision of relaxed conviviality in an Eastern European tavern – the taps flowing, the toes tapping, elbows nestled on laden table tops – and the movement grew in richness and warmth, building to a perfectly co-ordinated final accelerando and a culminating fff trill from the two cellos which practically lifted us from our seats!

Claire Seymour

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