A Masterly Brahms Piano Quartet Lights Up a Sunday Morning in Cardiff

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Dvořák, Brahms: The Frith Piano Quartet: Benjamin Frith (piano), Robert Heard (violin), Louise Williams (viola) Richard Jenkinson (cello). Reardon Smith Theatre, National Museum of Wales, Cardiff, 15.1.12.  GB

Dvořák, Piano Quartet in D, Op.23
Brahms, Piano Quartet No.1 in G minor, Op.25

When Schoenberg explained why he had chosen to orchestrate the First Piano Quartet of Brahms he began by explaining, reasonably enough, that he had done so because he liked the piece very much. He went on to add that “it is always played very badly; the better the pianist, the louder he plays and you hear nothing from the strings. I wanted to hear everything”. I like to think that Schoenberg would have enjoyed the performance of the Brahms quartet given as part of this Sunday morning chamber music concert. Benjamin Frith is a very good pianist, a thoroughly accomplished soloist; but he is also an experienced and ‘diplomatic’ chamber musician, who certainly didn’t play the piano part too loudly; indeed he and his colleagues made it possible to “hear everything”, with the lucid phrasing and well-judged instrumental balance that characterised their performance of Brahms’ quartet.

Many of the same virtues were also evident in their performance of the other work on the programme, Dvořák’s Piano Quartet in D. Though thoroughly well-made and pleasant, it has to be said that this is not one of Dvořák’s most distinctive or characterful works. Its first movement offers a range of moods and manners, which were nicely articulated by the Frith Quartet, the whole having a well-judged sense of scale and pace to it. In the theme and five variations which make up the andantino second movement the transitions of structure and mood were nicely distinguished, at one moment troubled and reflective at the next singingly optimistic, and the beautiful melodic line of the coda was very attractive. The furiant rhythms of the scherzo theme which opens the third movement could have danced a little more insistently, but the allegro agitato material was played with appealing vivacity and purposeful lucidity.

Enjoyable as Dvořák’s Quartet (premiered in 1875) is, Brahms’s First Piano Quartet (which had been premiered less than fifteen years previously in 1861) is music of a different order and scale. This is one of the great works in the chamber music canon, and it got a performance which brought out most of its qualities. The long first movement embraces triumph and tenderness, though tragic pathos is never very far away (Cobbett, indeed, described the movement as “one of the most original and impressive tragic compositions since the first movement of Beethoven’s ninth symphony”). Whether or not one wants to go quite that far, there was much to admire in the way the Frith Quartet elucidated the depth and the range of this music, both in its moments of textual complexity and its moments of austerity. In their playing of the Intermezzo which follows, with its 9/8 rhythms, the tenderness and near-pathetic introspection of the scherzo stood in very effective contrast to the delightful sparkle and elegance of the trio.

In the andante third movement, the lyrical theme in E flat was glorious and the march it frames was more jauntily ceremonial than aggressively militaristic in intention. With the return of the lyrical material at the close of the movement, the Quartet brought out the remarkable sheer beauty of Brahms’s writing in admirable and convincing fashion. The incipient tragedy of the first movement and the sometimes darkly mysterious nature of the second now left well behind, the closing Rondo alla zingarese was played with enormous panache and infectious fire. It was one of those occasions when being confined in a seat in a concert hall seemed a thoroughly unnatural condition – since it was obvious that one should be up on one’s feet and dancing! The sheer excitement of the Frith Quartet’s playing of this movement was properly greeted, at its close, with tumultuous applause. But, of course, that excitement was the product of remarkably disciplined playing and of the path we had followed, through the three previous movements, to get there. One of the joys, indeed, of this performance was how well it conveyed a sense of the work’s shape as a whole.

With a chamber work as good as this, as well played as this, who needs orchestration and orchestras?

Glyn Pursglove