United Kingdom Haydn, Mendelssohn, Schubert, Gounod/Liszt, Brahms: Endellion String Quartet, Benjamin Grosvenor (piano), Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford, 13.6.2014
Haydn String Quartet in G major, Op. 76 no. 1
Mendelssohn Andante and Rondo Capriccioso, Op. 14
Schubert Impromptu in G flat major, D899 no. 3
Gounod/Liszt Valse de Faust
Brahms Piano Quintet in F minor, Op. 34
On a warm summer’s evening, this appealing programme offered a varied mixture of miniatures and serious works. Joy and gravitas often sat side by side within single movements even, and that was certainly true of the first of Haydn’s Op. 76 set of Quartets, despite all the irresistible charm which so many of this composer’s Quartets exhibit generally. Still, it was a pity that the Endellions’ performance was somewhat nervous and hard-driven, rarely drawing back to allow Haydn’s inventiveness and wit to come forward with the relaxed self-assurance which would probably have served the music better. For instance, the syncopations in the slow movement were more restless than they need have been (adagio sostenuto is Haydn’s marking) and the last movement could have been less rushed, as this is not one of Haydn’s characteristically fizzing presto finales, but an allegro ma non troppo. However, an excellent contrast was effected between the skittish, chromatic Minuet (anticipating a Beethovenian scherzo) performed with humorous inconclusiveness, and the warm, schwungvoll abandon of the melodious Trio.
The Endellions gave place to Benjamin Grosvenor for the remainder of the first half. The Andante and Rondo Capriccioso stems from Mendelssohn’s teenage years, and there is clear youthful ebullience in the Rondo section, like the scherzo from A Midsummer Night’s Dream or the Octet. After the Schubertian dreaminess of the opening Andante section, Grosvenor intruded the Rondo’s outburst of energy almost immediately, maintaining not only nimble dexterity on the keyboard but also sufficient weight in what is a rather earnest concert showpiece. Grosvenor again achieved a fluid rippling part within the middle of an otherwise calm and composed atmosphere in Schubert’s G flat major Impromptu. In the picaresque medley of themes from Gounod’s Faust woven together by Liszt in one of his lively concert paraphrases, the pianist brought out the orchestral capacities of the piano not only in the more extrovert depictions of the waltz scene, but also in the colourful arabesques in the piano’s upper register, evoking the study in timbre of Les jeux d’eau à la Villa d’Este.
All the performers came together in the second half for Brahms’s Piano Quintet, a work of symphonic proportions and concentration. Compared to the Haydn, this was an ideally measured interpretation, balancing both the Classical and Romantic elements which are a feature of the score, among many of Brahms’s others. Climaxes and more passionate sections were given full clout, but there was also a sense of control. This is by no means the only way to approach Brahms, but the performance in this instance was certainly convincing, with its shifting moods all the more telling as a result. Quite often with Brahms, for all the depths of emotion expressed, there is the impression of yet greater reserves held back. In this regard the brief flourishing of the music at the climax of the slow movement before quickly retreating into a more guarded emotional region was spot on. Similarly too, there was an uneasy disposition in the Scherzo’s quiet and mysterious opening before the sudden breaking in of the principal forte theme.
Grosvenor was sensitive to the occasions when the piano variously took centre stage or an accompanying role, and if anything, it was the Quartet who seemed more eager to assert themselves, over against the piano. Fortunately this hardly unsettled the music’s course generally, which unfolded with the inevitability needed to realise Brahms’s involved structures effectively.