United Kingdom Beethoven, Brahms: Adderbury Ensemble [David Lepage (violin), Christopher Windass (violin), Vanessa Mcnaught (viola), Katherine Sharman (cello), Viv Mclean (piano)]: St John the Evangelist Church, Oxford, 11.6.2015 (CR)
Beethoven: String Quartet no. 9 in C major ‘Razumovsky’, Op 59 No 3
Brahms: Intermezzo in E flat major, Op 117 No 1
Beethoven (arr. by Vinzenz Lachner): Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Op 58
It was an intriguing decision by the Adderbury Ensemble to pair one each of the major chamber and orchestral works of Beethoven’s ‘middle period’, and still more so to present the Concerto in a chamber arrangement. In certain respects, of all Beethoven’s Piano Concertos, the Fourth is the one with the most obvious lyrical and chamber qualities, and therefore it is perhaps not so surprising that it should be arranged in this way, just as some of Mozart’s and Chopin’s pair have also been. Although not a concerto, Beethoven did sanction a piano trio arrangement of his Second Symphony, as Haydn had also authorised chamber arrangements of some of his own symphonies, so it was a not unknown practice to scale down orchestral works in this fashion.
In the first half, four musicians of the Adderbury Ensemble performed the third of Beethoven’s ‘Razumovsky’ Quartets – works which, in ambition and scale, already stride far ahead of what seem to be, in comparison, the polite salon pieces of Mozart’s and Haydn’s essays in the genre, and even Beethoven’s own earlier Opus 18 set. Nevertheless, the mysterious, probing harmonies of the slow introduction to this quartet still show Beethoven looking back to his forbears, in this case drawing upon the ambiguous harmonies of Mozart’s ‘Dissonance’ Quartet K465, as his model. Here the Adderbury Ensemble were quiet and withdrawn, but oddly relaxed in their interpretation, which I feared might betoken a directionless performance in the rest of the work. But fortunately this proved to be unfounded, as they found the right quality of tension and determination which are the hallmarks of Beethoven’s heroic, impulsive middle period style. The first subject of the main Allegro vivace took off with energy and vigour, leading into a more probing development section, and then a sublimated recapitulation of the opening material, pursuing exactly the terse and cogent dialectical trajectory of Beethoven’s pre-eminent sonata forms.
There was a steady persistence to the unworldly atmosphere of the minor-key second movement – marked ‘Andante con moto quasi allegretto’ such that, like the later Seventh and Eight Symphonies, it is dubious whether it can be described as a ‘slow movement’ at all. The pungent pizzicato interjections from Katherine Sharman on the cello also provided well-judged impetus. The performers drew an effective contrast between the old-world graciousness of the outer sections of the Minuet, and their searching way with the middle Trio section, though the reprise of the Minuet ended with a question mark, sustaining a searching approach which led naturally to the ebullient finale. Even by Beethoven’s standards this is one of his most unfettered expressions, and the Adderburys despatched it with seemingly carefree ease. My only doubt was whether this approach satisfactorily resolved the tensions and drama of the foregoing movements, but there was no question as to the technical accomplishment of this performance.
Viv Mclean opened the second half in reflective mood with an intensely focused interpretation of Brahms’s Intermezzo in E flat – based on a Scottish lullaby, and perhaps the most famous of the composer’s clutch of late works for solo piano. The delicately percussive sonority of the upper registers of the Steinway grand piano at St John the Evangelist brought out the repeated octave tintinnabulations particularly clearly, while Mclean drew upon the instrument’s darker depths for the middle section.
The string players rejoined Mclean for the performance of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto in its chamber arrangement by Vinzenz Lachner. This worked better than might be imagined, not least since the work starts quietly and poetically, and so the lack of full orchestral forces was not immediately apparent. The addition of a double bass (played by an uncredited performer) helped to give weight to the texture, and the resonant acoustic of the church meant that it was not really a problem to fill the space, not least in the strings’ impassioned sequences in the Andante. The problem was more that the limited number of performers diminished the spectrum of dynamics which could be attained between ripieno passages and concertino episodes. Also, of course, the variety of timbres in the orchestral original came to be missed. Taking the work as it was given, the musicians certainly cohered well in evoking a sense of orchestral music on a small scale, rather than trying to create the illusion of this being genuine chamber music. That was vital in sustaining the different sort of dynamism which Beethoven achieved in this concerto – a work as distinct from the others of its type, as from the other compositions of that volcanically evolving period of Beethoven’s creative life.
The Adderbury Ensemble are a fine and well-known group of professional musicians in Oxfordshire who provide an important function as a regular focal point in the county for chamber music in particular. However their impact upon that and orchestral music-making are of more than local interest and the reputation they enjoy there ought to spread further, to the extent that it has not done so already.