Alexander Melnikov and the Jerusalem Quartet: A Fine Partnership in Schumann

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Schumann: Jerusalem Quartet, Alexander Melnikov (piano), Wigmore Hall, London, 9.5. 2012 (GDn)

Schumann: Piano Quartet in E flat Op.47
: Piano Quintet in E flat Op.44

They were clearly expecting trouble at the Wigmore Hall this evening. Patrons entered the building under the watchful eye of two security guards, and the number of uniformed staff patrolling the foyers inside was unusually high. The reason? Pro-Palestinian demonstrators have made it a tradition to disrupt performances by the Jerusalem Quartet. Their most high-profile hit was at this very venue last year, so the management had every reason to be cautious.

In the event, no disruptions occurred, which was just as well for all present, as the performance was to a very high standard indeed, and distractions would have been deeply frustrating. In fact, music-lovers on the south coast may have borne the brunt of the Wigmore’s diligence. The quartet played in Brighton on the previous night, and as the Wigmore was clearly on high alert, the protesters went there instead to make a nuisance of themselves.

To be fair to the Wigmore Hall, the extra security measures were very discreet. The security guards were all immaculately dressed, and the programme itself wasn’t affected in the slightest. And what a programme it was! The Jerusalem Quartet is rightly famous for the intensity and focus of their interpretations, and Schumann’s chamber music is the ideal vehicle for their considerable talents. Alexander Melnikov is another intense and passionate performer who plays any nineteenth-century German music as if it had been written just for him.

But how does a piano soloist of such idiosyncratic distinction fit into a chamber ensemble? The answer on this occasion was – very well indeed. It turns out that the musical virtues that elevate the Jerusalem Quartet above most of the competition are very similar to those that make Melnikov such an individual at the keyboard. Both treat rubato as the rule rather than the exception. And both regularly go to dynamic extremes, but without letting the rhythmic precision or the measured phasing suffer in the process.

The Op.47 Quartet casts each of the players as individuals, only begrudgingly bringing them together for homogeneous tuttis. In other hands, the textures can seem bare, but the tonal weight of each of these players ensures a feeling of intensity in every phrase. It is clear that the three string players have spent hundreds of hours performing together, to the extent that they sound like the same musician, playing violin, viola and cello respectively. Melnikov is obviously at a disadvantage here, but he’s on the same musical wavelength. His playing is big-boned, very physical and very legato. Schumann gives the players a hand by always carefully balancing the piano against the ensemble, and despite Melnikov’s ‘Russian’ dynamics, he rarely dominated the textures.

There was great communication between Melnikov and the cellist, Kyril Zlotnikov, with the piano left hand synchronising skilfully with the cello’s bass lines. That didn’t always quite work, though. In the slow movement of the Quartet, Melnikov got ahead of the strings, a problem that remained for a surprisingly long time. The string playing wasn’t note-perfect either. All of them had moments of insecure passage work and questionable tuning on individual notes. But these really were isolated incidents, and the sheer musicality of the performance more than compensated.

The more famous Op.44 Quintet sounded almost symphonic when performed with this level of physical intensity and dynamic extremes. There was nothing ‘safe’ about this performance. In the development section of the first movement, Melnikov really took liberties with the tempi, at one point winding down the ostinato until it gradually reached a standstill, then kicking back in with the next phrase played at tempo. Fortunately, the quartet was able to keep track, not limiting Melnikov’s indulgences, but closely following every one.

The combination of extreme dynamics and thick legato briefly threatened the agility of the scherzo, which sounded a little muddy in the opening bars. But precise articulation of the phrases had the effect of delineating the music’s structure and giving the movement the sense of direction it needed. And the finale was a triumph, the precision of the playing and the shared sense of musical purpose bringing everything together for a thrilling and fitting finale.

The concert formed part of a UK tour, promoting a new CD. It is no coincidence then, that the disc on sale in the foyer shared its programme with the concert itself. No doubt the players will have sorted out the small ensemble and tuning issues in the studio. And given the track record of both quartet and pianist, they are all supremely able to recreate the excitement of the recital hall on disc. So if the concert was designed to generate interest in the new CD, it worked – on me anyway. Although I haven’t heard the disc myself, I’d say the chances are it is going to be something special. Buy it!

Gavin Dixon