Glorious Mozart and Dispiriting Schubert from Bezuidenhout and the Chiaroscuro Quartet

20/03/2019

Schubert, Mozart: Kristian Bezuidenhout (fortepiano), Chiaroscuro Quartet (Alina Ibragimova and Pablo-Hernan Benedi [violins], Emilie Hörnlund [viola], Claire Thirion [cello]), Vancouver Playhouse, Vancouver, 10.3.2019. (GN)

Kristian Bezuidenhout playing an 1790 Shantz fortepiano © Jan Gates

Schubert – String Quartet No.14 in D minor ‘Death and the Maiden’
Mozart – Piano Sonata No.14 in C minor K457: Piano Concerto No.12 in A major K414 (transcribed for string quartet)

This concert was a high point for enthusiasts of authentic performance. With Kristian Bezuidenhout – one of the finest exponents of Mozart on the fortepiano – contributing the famous C minor Sonata K457 and collaborating with the Chiaroscuro Quartet in the string quartet version of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.12, there were riches indeed. The pianist always impressed with his considered elegance, insight and sense of interpretative space. The concerto had a lovely sense of scale and balance while mining both the work’s contemplative and operatic elements. The question mark was the Chiaroscuro Quartet’s reading of Schubert’s ‘Death and the Maiden’ which, while full of dramatic extremes, was distinctly light on Schubertian flow and sentiment and exhibited a self-consciously studied veneer throughout.

Alongside the A major Sonata K310, the C minor ranks as Mozart’s most dramatic in the genre. This performance was certainly dramatic enough, but it was Bezuidenhout’s sense of architecture and line that stood out. It was beautifully poised playing, with clean, sculpted runs filled with character and charm, yet finding the darker contemplative corners too. His artful combination of structural anchoring and lyrical undulation in the opening allegro took one forward into a carefully etched narrative and established a convincing dramatic balance. The Adagio displayed refinement and a feeling of almost unbounded interpretative space, with beautifully transparent voicings. It was notable how the pianist could find little glimmerings of joy and wit in his phrases to set beside the darker postures. The finale displayed more virtuosity, and one delighted in the elegant and varied phrase shapes that were brought to bear on the movement’s moody countenance. Bezuidenhout used the bottom end of the fortepiano impressively, and the locally restored 1790 Shantz showed its mettle. Perhaps the only thing I regretted was that room could not be found for the companion C minor Fantasy K475.

There has always been some interest in the string quartet versions of Mozart’s three Piano Concertos K413-415, though the A major concerto K414 has got the lion’s share of the attention.  Traditional advocates of this work have included Peter Frankl, Alfred Brendel and Paul Lewis, but their ventures employed a modern grand with a modern string quartet. As evidenced on this occasion, the gains in transparency and lightness from authentic instruments are notable, and the finely balanced textures of the Chiaroscuro Quartet provided a strong underpinning for the pianist. The group’s allegros had keen point and athletic vigour but it was their care over dynamics that was particularly noteworthy. As usual in this arrangement, the fortepiano plays in the tuttis.

A key ingredient was how much the piano was allowed to ‘sing’ its lines and take the listener into rarefied corners. In addition to the standard cadenzas, there were also cadential interpolations in the middle of the first movement, suggesting a more varied journey than one usually encounters. It was Bezuidenhout’s knowing patience that allowed his response to be so lyrical and subtle in the opening movement: the cadenzas were transporting. The Chiaroscuro’s playing was technically spot-on, creating an admirable balance. Under Alina Ibragimova’s leadership, there was both alertness and beauty in the group’s accompaniment. One always noted the considered refinement of their sustained legato lines and their consistency of execution: recurring passages in the movement were played identically every time they arose. There was no drop-off in the pianism in the later movements: a suspended ‘speaking’ quality informed the Andante, both deliberative and lyrical, while the perky finale displayed a beguiling mix of ingenuity and drama. In spite of the reduced orchestration, this performance often seemed richer in emotional range and more multilayered in texture than traditional alternatives.

The Chiaroscuro Quartet’s recording of Schubert’s ‘Death and the Maiden’ was just released on BIS at the end of last year, so there was some excitement in hearing it live. I was a little puzzled that it was programmed to begin the concert, and that might have been a constraint for the performers. I also conjectured that the work may not be as fresh for the ensemble as it once was. The bottom line is that the performance did not come off very well, offering some demonstrative playing but otherwise lacking a natural sense of momentum and Schubertian feeling. The audience may have felt it was the authentic instruments that created the difference in the experience, but a quick trip back to the original Quatuor Mosaiques recording would have convinced them otherwise. The Mosaiques give a lovely authentic reading, full of natural feeling and insight.

The acerbic address and rhythmic emphasis of this performance almost had me thinking of the severity of Beethoven’s late quartets, contrasting brazen defiance with the softest disembodied utterances. The opening allegro certainly followed the template of attack-stasis-pianissimo-attack, with the attacks being as extreme as the pianissimos. However, with virtually no underlying lyrical pulse, this approach tended to slow down the music and break it into little bits. The design was far too predictable to generate much spontaneity: even the wonderful Webern-like passage of stillness just before the movement’s close seemed anticlimactic since the players had dropped to pianissimo so many times before. Were Ibragimova’s little flicks of phrase and restrained patches of lyrical expansion really enough to capture the range of Schubert’s yearning or the work’s subtle gradations of motion and intensity? I admire rethinks of great works, but this one struck me as mainly contrived. There were so many dynamic extremes and so much bludgeoning weight here – but what did it all mean?  Some take this work as the composer’s ‘testament to death’, but I admit that I got little emotional feeling of any kind. The movement just seemed very long.

The following theme and variations were better in some ways, well played but not really tender enough, and occasionally marred by fussy detailing. The Scherzo was not distinctive, and the finale battered along with more deathlike bludgeoning and overemphasis. This reading unfortunately served the performers more than the composer.

Geoffrey Newman

Previously published in a slightly different form on http://www.vanclassicalmusic.com.

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