The Chamber Classics Unwrapped Series Ends in Fine Style

Haydn, Moeran and Schumann: Julius Drake (piano), Maggini Quartet [Julian Leaper & David Angel (violins), Martin Outram (viola), Michal Kaznowski (cello)], King’s Place, London, 10.12.2014 (CS)

Haydn: String Quartet Op.55 No.2
Moeran: String Quartet No.1 in A minor (1921)
Schumann: Piano Quintet in E flat Op.44


In this final week of the year-long Chamber Classics Unwrapped series at King’s Place, Schumann’s gloriously melodic Piano Quintet in Eb, which came 13th in the online poll conducted by King’s Place and BBC Music Magazine, was rousingly performed by the Maggini Quartet and pianist Julius Drake, preceded by works by Joseph Haydn and Ernest John Moeran.

The rich, striding chords at the start of the Allegro brillante of Schumann’s magnificent Quintet were certainly vibrant and radiant, but throughout the Quintet I was impressed by the way that Julius Drake and the Maggini Quartet balanced vivacity with well-measured coherence.  Thus, following the excitement of the opening episode, cellist Michal Kaznowski’s lyrical ascending melody was expressive and tender, and beautifully answered by Martin Outram’s viola descent.  But, when the passage returned in the recapitulation it took on a different hue, played a fifth higher and coloured by the second violin’s sustained lines and the first violin’s decorated appoggiaturas.

The slow second movement, In Modo d’una Marcia, was delightfully spacious; Julian Leaper articulated the pointed march motif with a quiet deliberation which was subsequently replicated precisely by his colleagues.  Contrasts were engendered in the episodes between the statements of the terse funereal procession: the cross-rhythms of the expressive piano section, piano triplets rocking against inner string quavers, weakened the tense rigidity of the march theme, while the Agitato released an outpouring of passionate emotion before the return of the main melody repressed the torrent of feeling once more.  Leaper produced a beautifully focused tone in the quiet, major-key legato episode; and, at the close, the march faded poignantly, diminishing to a whispered chord of ghostly harmonics.

The Scherzo is a veritable hurricane, requiring brilliant technique from all the players.  Here, though, the motifs and lines retained clarity, and the whirlwind of semiquavers in the second Trio was never excessively heavy.   A spirit of defiance marked Drake’s assertive crotchets at the start of the Allegro ma non troppo but with the commencement of the rising, expanding lines of the fugato section this gave way to exuberance and the joyful lyricism of the triumphant conclusion.

Throughout the Quintet, the ensemble between piano and strings was superb, the subtle variations of pulse perfectly co-ordinated and wonderfully communicative.  Julius Drake mastered the fiendish pianistic challenges which apparent ease.  This was a performance of outstanding musicianship and technical assurance.

The recital began with Haydn’s String Quartet Op.55 No.2, sometimes known as ‘The Razor’.  The nickname derives from a probably apocryphal anecdote about a visit made by the English publisher John Bland to the Esterháza in 1789: on hearing Haydn lamenting his poor razor and exclaiming that he would give his best quartet for a good one, Bland is reputed to have presented the composer with a fine set of blades and been rewarded with the autographed manuscript of Op.55 No.2.

It took the Maggini Quartet a little time to settle and find the tenor of Haydn’s quartet.  Leaper elected to employ scant vibrato at the start of the double variations, Andante più tosto Allegretto, which begin the quartet, while cellist Kaznowski offered a fuller, more resonant tone.  The alternating major and minor variations were well-considered and poised, but sometimes lacking in direction.

The decorative violin turns and acciaccaturas, and the striking dynamic contrasts and unexpected silences, brought greater animation to the second movement Allegro, although the ensemble was not always sure in the more stormy passages.  But, in the major key Menuetto, the Maggini seemed to find the register they had been seeking, with the glorious opening duet for viola and first violin, which was then shared between the string voices.  The Rondo was fleet-footed and irrepressibly cheerful, the racing rondo theme and overlapping entries now precisely and expertly delivered.

Before the interval came Ernest John Moeran’s String Quartet in A minor.  Born in 1894, Moeran epitomises the generation of British composers working in the first half of the twentieth-century, in whom the impact of the English landscape, folk music (in Moeran’s case, of his native Norfolk and his hereditary Ireland), the experiences of the First World War, and the influence of contemporary developments in European music cohered to inspire a unique musical voice.

The String Quartet in A minor was written in 1921 and dedicated to the Belgian violinist Desiré Defauw, a refugee in London and founder and leader of the Allied Quartet, whose other members comprised Charles Woodhouse, Lionel Tertis and Emile Doehaerd.

Turning from the prevailing Brahmsian traditions upheld at the Royal College of Music, the young Moeran was excited by the music of his compatriots Delius, Ireland and Vaughan Williams and also looked across the English Channel for inspiration, admiring in particular the work of Ravel.  In the first movement Allegro it was the expansiveness of English folk melody which charmed, the cello theme, echoed by viola, singing eloquently, the modal harmonies transporting the listener to bygone ages while the textures and rhythmic subtleties were very much of a modern-day ambience.  The hushed conclusion was bewitching.  The viola theme in the ensuing Andante con moto struck a wistful tone, and the excitable central section was subdued by the peaceful, pensive close.  In the Rondo: Allegro Vivace the spirited pizzicato writing and airy, sweeping string-crossings were reminiscent of Ravel’s String Quartet in F, and the tension between 6/8 and 3/4 emphases propelled the music forward.  Moeran’s quartet was admired in 1921 when it was first heard, but subsequently largely forgotten.  The Maggini, who have recorded Moeran’s chamber music for Naxos (review), made a compelling case for this quartet.

And, so Chamber Classics Unwrapped reached its conclusion.  1842 was a year of tremendous creativity for Schumann: in addition to the Quintet, he composed the three Op.13 string quartets and the Piano Quartet in Eb Op.47.  He later called 1842, ‘the chamber music year’.  2014 has been a similarly satisfying year of chamber music at King’s Place.  2015 will bring Minimalism Unwrapped which will explore the ‘ways in which composers have wiped the slate clean across time’.  Ranging from Gregorian chant to the choral works of the Renaissance, from masterpieces by Arvo Pärt and John Tavener to new works by Muhly, Graham Fitkin, Mikhail Karikis, Oliver Coates, Scanner and Nik Bärtsch, the series begins on 7 January when The Sixteen explore the ‘power of plainsong’.

Claire Seymour

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