United Kingdom Beethoven and Schubert: Paul Lewis (piano), Alexander Sitkovetsky (violin), Lawrence Power (viola), Bjørg Lewis (cello), Alois Posch (double bass). Wigmore Hall, London, 22.12.2014 (MB)
Beethoven – String Trio in C minor, op.9 no.3
Cello Sonata in C major, op.102 no.1
Schubert – Piano Quintet in A major, D 667, ‘The Trout’
This was a delightful pre-Christmas concert, in which a group of very fine musicians came together and offered something more than the sum of their parts and likewise more than the sum of the already appealing programme’s parts. First we heard Beethoven’s op.9 no.3 String Trio in a splendidly alert account, the sense of responsiveness between players at least as great as in a quartet performance. The first movement’s violence registered fully, almost as if this were later Beethoven, but the overall ‘Classical’ line remained intact. Its second subject sounded utterly gorgeous. The development sounded unusually close to Mozart in C minor mode, his piano sonata in that key in particular: perhaps a matter of motivic working? Febrile intensity of playing reminded us that we were also not so very far from Schoenberg – his own String Trio of course one of the very greatest essays in the genre. In the Adagio con espressione, notwithstanding the undoubtedly Beethovenian manner of the melodic ‘surface’, the method rightly underlined the composer’s debt to Haydn. The wonder of the trio texture was fully communicated in gloriously rich tone, though never for its own sake. The third movement sounded as a true scherzo: furious, but with none of that all-too-common sacrifice of harmony to rhythm. (As if it were ever a matter of either/or!) The trio again offered Haydnesque reminiscence – up to a point. A duly goal-oriented finale proved anything but inflexible, showing how Beethoven had learned his tragic lessons from Mozart. This was playing of an intensity that would not have shamed a performance of the Fifth Symphony, the scale of Beethoven’s ambition fully realised. Although it seems almost unnecessary to mention this, given the excellence of the performance, Alexander Sitkovetsky was a very late substitute for an indisposed Lisa Batiashvili; one would never have known.
Paul and Bjørg Lewis were the artists for the C major Cello Sonata, op.102 no.1. Whatever the presentiments in the Trio, there was no mistaking the real ‘late’ thing here, its distilled simplicity and fathomless profundity already to the fore in the first movement’s introduction. Drama, in whatever sense, asserted itself thereafter through typical ‘late’, dialectical complexity. A concentration worthy of Webern was the reward. The second movement struck uncommonly well that difficult balance, or dialectic, between fragility and sublimity: difficult not least since it is not necessarily the most overt of those relationships. Occasional intonational slips were of minimal import. The concluding Allegro vivace section seemed on the verge of the late piano sonatas and, in its most abrupt outbursts, again on the verge of Webern too. There was of course Bachian counterpoint to be heard, but quite rightly, the realisation of Beethoven’s tonal planning and drama retained, even strengthened, its roots in Haydn and Mozart.
All players were on stage for the Trout Quintet. The twin ambitions of work and performance were announced in grand style in the first movement’s opening bars. This was a gloriously big-boned performance, full of life and chiaroscuro. The piano sounded quite different, brighter and avowedly post-Mozartian: a matter of Schubert’s writing, of course, but also of Paul Lewis’s performance. If anything, he sounded still more at home in Schubert than in Beethoven. The performance of the Andante was full of potentiality, offering a fine sense of where Brahms and even Schoenberg might have come from, Brahms especially strongly anticipated in the relish accorded to the movement’s harmonic and melodic richness. The motivic insistence of Alois Posch’s double bass was not the least valued contributor to its progress. Both difference and similarity with respect to Beethoven again registered in the scherzo: this was certainly a more good-humoured note than had been struck in the first half. A beautifully relaxed trio maintained rigour and vigour. The celebrated variations were loved – how could they not be? – but never sentimentalised; this remained a thoroughly vital performance. Unity was the hallmark of the finale, its somewhat problematical form managing nevertheless to bring together the work as a whole. This was decidedly superior Hausmusik.