Salzburg Festival (4): Shostakovich a Poor Substitute for Birtwistle in Salzburg

AustriaAustria Salzburg Festival (4) – Fauré, Shostakovich, Birtwistle, and Brahms: Renaud Capuçon (violin), Gérard Caussé (viola), Gautier Capuçon (cello), Nicholas Angelich (piano). Groβer Saal, Mozarteum, Salzburg, 22.8.2013 (MB)

Fauré: Piano Quartet no.2 in G minor, op.45
Shostakovich:  Piano Trio no.2 in E minor, op.67
Birtwistle:  Bourdon, for violin and viola
Brahms : Piano Quartet no.1 in G minor, op.25

Your reviewer’s spirits were not lifted by checking the Festival website just before leaving for this concert. Birtwistle’s Piano Trio, the principal attraction of the programme, still present in the morning, had been replaced by Shostakovich’s second piano trio. A programme insert informed us that the change had been necessitated by one of the musicians – it did not say which – having fallen ill during the rehearsal period. Such things happen, but given that the programming of works by Birtwistle throughout the festival had been intended to complement Gawain, it was still a great disappointment, heightened by the identity of the interloper. What had already looked an odd collection of pieces looked still odder.

With respect to Fauré, I continue to try – from time to time. His Second Piano Quartet is pleasant enough, but I still cannot hear what some others apparently do in this music. The players opened the first movement with turbulence and instrumental richness not so very far removed from Brahms, as if attempting – creditably – already to forge a link with the final piece on the programme. There was some spellbinding pianissimo playing The scherzo proved mercurial, yet did not lack backbone. Gérard Caussé’s noble viola solo launched the slow movement, the obliqueness of whose harmonies proved not without interest, though it remained somewhat placid in character. (Doubtless devotees will point to troubled waters beneath the surface; I wish I could hear them.) The finale benefited from ardent and cultivated playing, with at least a slight sense of a legacy to composers such as Debussy and Ravel, though not without a sense either of high Romanticism. If the conclusion appeared to come out of nowhere, then that is a matter of the piece rather than the performance.

Fauré’s quartet, if hardly a masterpiece, is, however, a far superior work to Shostakovich’s typically obvious second piano trio, which nevertheless received an excellent performance. Gautier Capuçon navigated the first movement’s opening harmonics with precision and evident identification. The all too predictable imitative passages that followed were equally finely despatched, likewise the transition to Moderato and the balance between players. Doubtless this was just the right note of hysteria; but once one has heard two or three pieces by Shostakovich, one knows his tricks all too well. The second movement was fast and furious, the excess of fury more than the threadbare material really deserves, yet making an insistent dramatic point out of its repetitions. Again, there could be no faulting the intensity of response in the slow movement, nor the shaping of it progress. There was excellent advocacy for the typical – all-too-typical – dance of ghostly dolls in the opening to the finale, though it was difficult not to find the score itself several vulgarisations of Mahler too far. The all-purpose hysteria pervading so much of the rest of the movement has one wishing it over before it had begun, but the players clearly gave it their all. Is there, though, with the possible exception of Verdi, any more grotesquely overrated composer?

Having lost Birtwistle’s Piano Trio, the Bourdon for violin and viola seemed a little lost at the beginning of the second half. It was good, nevertheless, to hear it; a miniature exploration of the instruments’ characters, paying especial attention to their open strings, albeit with scordatura tuning: both violin and viola tune their lowest string down a semitone and the second lowest up a semitone. The music begins, almost as if tuning up, the prevalence of open strings perhaps inevitably putting one in mind of Berg’s Violin Concerto. There is already, though, a typical sense of temporal refraction, with (relative) violence soon interposed. More than once I heard an affinity not only with the composer’s recent Violin Concerto, but also with the new Classicism characteristic to a certain extent of that work. Soon, one felt quite hypnotised by the almost lullaby-like rocking; all too soon, it was over.

It was interesting to note immediately in the first movement of Brahms’s G minor quartet how, in an age of homogeneity, how recognisably ‘Gallic’, in a quite traditional sense, the string tone sounded. It is often difficult, if not impossible, to say what one means by that; yet, one knows it when one hears it. Brahms’s expansiveness was relished, even if the structure were not always quite so clearly determined as it might have been. Metrical complexities, however, were vividly communicated. The second movement offered quiet insistence, the complexities of its central section sung rather than grimacing. But were the outer sections just a little well-mannered? Sometimes the music sounded more like Fauré than Fauré had. Pure tonal richness came to the rescue in the third movement, which received a splendidly songful yet passionate account, which had to be restarted when Renaud Capuçon broke a string. The finale was taken at quite a lick, without sounding harried. ‘Hungarian’ excitement, however, tended to be conveyed at the price of stopping and starting a little too much. Brahms is deeper than this, though such a performance is preferable to straining for a profundity that would only sound appliqué. Nicholas Angelich occasionally glossed – indeed, pedalled – over some piano detail.

Mark Berry