United Kingdom Haydn, Shostakovich and Chausson: Charles Owen (piano), Katharine Gowers (violin), Carducci Quartet [Matthew Denton & Michelle Fleming (violins), Eoin Schmidt-Martin (viola), Emma Denton (cello)], King’s Place, London, 14. 5.2014 (CS)
Haydn: String Quartet in D Op.33 No.6 (Hob. III: 42)
Shostakovitch: Piano Quintet in G minor Op.57
Chausson: Concerto in D for violin, piano & string quartet Op.21
It’s quite common for musicians to be invited to curate their own concerts and series, but less so for audiences to get the chance to devise a wish-list of their ‘favourite hits’. But, this joint venture between King’s Place and BBC Music Magazine has enabled just that: an online poll has identified listeners’ ‘Top 50’ pieces of chamber music, and these works have subsequently formed the core of the ‘Chamber Classics Unwrapped’ series which runs until the end of 2014.
If some perennial favourites have made a predictable appearance in this chamber chart, then the list also includes caters for those with less familiar predilections and penchants. Add to this some imaginative scheduling and the result is inventive, diverting programmes such as this exciting performance by the Carducci String Quartet, with pianist Charles Owen and violinist Katharine Gowers.
We began with the poise and elegance of the eighteenth century. The opening Vivace assai of Haydn’s String Quartet Op.33 No.6 was sunny and airy, the four players’ individual voices distinctly characterised but also even and well-blended, as they conversed easily. Emma Denton’s cello sang the bass line’s more melodic motifs engagingly.
A striking aspect of the Carducci’s playing is the way they are able to move instantly and utterly convincingly from one mood to another. Here, the impishness of the first movement was surprisingly supplanted by the plaintive Andante, the nudging, sighing quavers of the inner voices ‘sobbing’ elegiacally, while Matthew Denton’s first violin traced an eloquent lament, swelling and ebbing with decorum and style. Sforzandi disturbed the quiet sorrow, but these ‘sturm und drang’gestures were contained within the calm; there was some lovely dialogue between cello and first violin, the rhythmic elaborations smooth and fleeting, the tone tender. Reticence was balanced by a sure, quiet sense of presence.
The Scherzo, with its asymmetrical, rustic accents, threw aside any suggestion of restraint, but the energy mustered by the Carducci was always full of grace. The downward octave leap of the Trio’s theme was re-interpreted mischievously at the start of the Finale, the neat staccato quavers delicately brushed by slurred arpeggio sweeps. Each variation had its own colour – the minor key episodes, led by a lyrical cello line, were full of wry wit – but the sentiments were perfectly judged and never overcooked.
Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet in G minor initiated a grander rhetoric, beginning with pianist Charles Owens’ forthright opening statement and the ensuing intense string textures, the cello striving to the top of its register. The absolute commitment evident here was characteristic of the Carducci’s approach throughout this performance; they sustained and controlled the tension, building effectively towards the huge climaxes. As the textures and timbres constantly shifted, the individual players moved to the fore and receded: in the Prelude, Eoin Schmidt-Martin’s viola melody rang out richly; Owens’ dry bass rumbles were succeeded by expansive chords punctuated by an incisive, high repetitive motif; urgent outbursts from the strings were juxtaposed with vibrato-light playing of cool transparency.
These evolving hues were ceaselessly engaging, as were the contrapuntal dialogues of the following Fugue, in which Shostakovich’s modern voice integrates wonderfully with traditional structures and forms. The transition to the undemonstrative quietude of the opening of this contrapuntal second movement was superbly controlled; similarly the imitative conversation, which is complex – at times strings are pitted ‘against’ piano, elsewhere the instrumental lines entwine with the piano’s multipartite threads. Within the inexorably unfolding lines, motivic echoes – a binding three-note idea and small scalic motions – were cleanly but unobtrusively articulated.
The breakneck fury of the Scherzo – the only movement where Shostakovich’s trademark sardonic humour is given free rein – was relentless, as tessitura and dynamic expanded with abandon. The biting string staccatos were complemented by pointed semitonal dissonances; aggressive bowing attacks were balanced by more ‘jovial’ fragments. Lyrical, humorous, sarcastic: the Carducci and Owen were equally at home.
The step-wise march of the pizzicato cello at the start of the Intermezzo was a composed support for Matthew Denton’s soaring melody. Later the movement’s closing diminuendo was beautifully judged. After this restrained passion, the Finale burst freely forth, the grand gestures never obscuring the clarity of Shostakovich’s lucid textures. After a more subdued central section reminiscent of the equability of the Intermezzo, the movement closed energetically with neoclassical stylishness and vigour.
The directly expressive vein of the Quintet was sustained in a powerful, immersing rendition of Ernest Chausson’s Concerto for violin, piano and string quartet, with violinist Katharine Gowers joining the ensemble. The first movement was animated, Gowers’ graceful outpouring of melody forming endless arcs of rich, warm descant, above a surging piano accompaniment with intense string interjections. ‘Concerto’ is perhaps an ill-fitting term to describe a work in which the solo violin and piano often dominate the musical conversation. Yet although frequently silent as the solo violin and piano engage in an impassioned duet, the Carducci’s contributions integrated seamlessly; at times, Denton’s violin assumed the melodic mantle, weaving expertly between his quartet partners and the solo voices. The transitions to the brief, calmer episodes were expertly modulated; textures – inner duets, rhythmic counterpoint, shimmering tremolo – were distinctly delineated. After the unrestrained torrent of rich chromaticism, the sweetness of Gowers’ final pianissimo ascent was refreshing.
A more airy grace characterised the Sicilienne, Gowers’ tone pure and crystalline as it spun above the busy, dancing string motifs which swayed gracefully. The third movement, Grave, opens with a long duet for solo violin and piano, and Gowers sustained a quiet, brooding intensity above the Owens’ shifting chromatic meandering. The quartet entered discreetly but quickly the urgency mounted, propelled by the piano’s complex cross-rhythms, building to huge waves of massed ‘orchestral’ sound above sweeping spread chords in the piano. After such drama, in which the solo violin was at times submerged, the pianissimo conclusion offered a moment of tranquil respite. In the gigue-like Finale, rhythmic exuberance was matched by melodic lyricism. There was much eloquent dialogue in the exchanges which possessed a genuine chamber-music intimacy, before the rousing drive to the close.
Reportedly, upon finishing his composition – which was dedicated to the Belgian virtuoso Eugène Ysaÿe – Chausson despaired: ‘Another failure!’ An erroneous self-deprecation, as the Carducci, Owen and Gowers unreservedly revealed.