United Kingdom Beethoven, Ravel, Brahms: Razumovsky Ensemble (Kolja Blacher & Alexander Sitkovetsky [violin], Robert Smissen & Andriy Viytovych [viola], Oleg Kogan &Alexander Chaushian [cello]), Wigmore Hall London, 30.6.2015 (CS)
Beethoven: String Trio in G major Op.9 No.1
Ravel: Sonata for violin and cello
Brahms: String Sextet No.2 in G major Op.36
Performances by the Razumovsky Ensemble, which was founded by the Ukrainian-born cellist Oleg Kogan in 1998, bring together leading soloists and orchestral players from around the world and enable them to indulge their passion for chamber music. As the players come together only occasionally, their music-making benefits from freshness and a freedom from routine, but the challenge, inevitably, is for the diverse individuals to harness their passion and commitment and create music which speaks with unanimity and precise ensemble.
On this occasion, at the Wigmore Hall, both the advantages and difficulties were evident, but the musical coherence grew, as did the intensity of communication both among the players and between platform and hall, as the concert progressed from works for two and three players to the larger ensemble required for Brahms’ Second String Sextet.
The three string trios which form Beethoven’s Op.9 set were written during 1797–98 when the composer was in his late twenties. They are youthful, vigorous works, and the first of the set, the G Major Trio, was given a robust rendition by violinist Kolja Blacher, viola player Andriy Viytovych and cellist Oleg Kogan. The Op.9 trios might be regarded as Beethoven’s preparation for his early string quartets – the Op.18 set was published in 1800 – but there was no sense in this performance of a ‘missing’ voice; indeed the textures and dynamics were almost symphonic at times, especially in the opening Allegro con brio where the trio relished Beethoven’s rich thematic development of the feathery, twisting arpeggio motifs which are announced in the prefatory Adagio. Vivtovych made an essential contribution to the fullness of the texture, moving effortlessly between the roles of accompanist and melodist. Blacher’s phrasing was graceful and light, the bow strokes fluent and relaxed. Dynamics and details were observed without any sense of fussiness.
Initially I felt that Kogan’s wide vibrato made his 1685 Rugeri cello a little too dominant within the texture, but in the Adagio his pulsing triplet accompaniment figure provided a soft, warm bed of sound for the song-like elaborations of the upper voices; and alone and in duet with the viola, the cello’s semiquaver passages were lyrical and well-shaped, although overall the quiet melancholy of this romance was not fully captured by the group. The ensemble was excellent in the airy Scherzo which followed, but the staccato moto perpetuo of the concluding Presto set off at a breakneck pace which was difficult to control, and the texture occasionally became opaque. Moreover, the movement’s contrasting stately melody was not clearly defined as an opposing idea. There was plenty of fiery dynamism but it sometimes overpowered the formal architecture of the movement.
I was surprised, too, by the sturdiness and heft which characterised Kogan’s and Blacher’s approach to Ravel’s Sonata for violin and cello. This sonata is a lucid, lean work – an ongoing, contrapuntal dialogue between the two instruments – epitomising Ravel’s highly polished aesthetic sensibility and the subtle expressiveness of his musical language: the nuances of its melodies, the hues of its harmonies. Kogan’s delicate first thematic statement – announced above the major/minor alternations of the violin’s circular accompaniment motifs – established an ethereal mood, but as the Allegro developed the dialogue between the voices was increasingly taut, and the duo did not sustain the fluidity of the opening. On the plus side, there was certainly a vivifying animation, and the syncopated exchanges and crystalline, ringing harmonics contributed to a strong sense of forward movement.
The Scherzo was, as Ravel instructs, Très vif, and both the contrast between pizzicato and arco sonorities and between rich double-stopping and austere single-voiced linearity, as well as the well-synchronised ‘two against three’ episodes, were effectively exploited to enhance the propulsion.
The lyrical lament for the cello which opens the chorale-like slow movement offered a welcome respite from the frenetic energy of the preceding movement; it was taken up by the violin, playing high on the G string, and the players emphasised the pungent dissonances which sounded surprisingly Eastern European in inflection, gradually increasing the expressive tension which exploded in the fury of the movement’s central section. The duo attacked the strenuous and complex polyphony of the final movement with astonishing vehemence and ferocity. My guest remarked that it was the first time she had heard Ravel sound like Shostakovich. There was no doubt that Blacher and Kogan had mastered the virtuosic challenges of the Sonata but I felt that they did not consistently convey its poetry.
After the interval the ensemble was supplemented by Alexander Sitkovetsky (violin), Robert Smissen (viola) and Alexander Chaushian (cello) for a vivacious and impassioned performance of Brahms’ G major String Sextet. As well as playing with individual accomplishment, the six players were unfailingly responsive to each other, with – from the first murmuring drone of the Allegro non troppo – the two violas once again making a significant contribution to the coherence of the ensemble: this oscillation, for example, moved from foreground to background, inconspicuously enhancing the unity of the material and texture. The wide span of the first violin’s opening theme and the spaciousness of the lower voices’ fragmented responses created an air of mystery, but when the first cello (Chaushian) picked up this melody it bloomed radiantly and pushed the violin to its highest realms. The players enjoyed the complexities of Brahms’ innovative development of the material, listening intently to the counter-ideas: the over-riding ambience was warm but there was an underlying sentiment of unrest.
The Scherzo pitted the three upper voices, playing a delicately ornamented theme, against the leaping pizzicatos of the three lower strings, and the Rasumovsky captured both the nostalgia of the form and teasing quality of the latter, before breaking out into a boisterous rustic dance in the Presto giocoso. The Adagio was deeply expressive as the players explored the elusive and ambiguous material and mood, but the concluding Poco Allegro banished doubts, its tense opening giving way to a beautifully phrased lyrical theme for the first violin and first cello in octaves.
The most striking features of this rendition of the Sextet were the strength generated by the rhythmic definition; the lucidity of the rich, lush textures; the wide dynamic range; and the engaging theatricality of the sum of the various parts. We were swept along by the players’ impetuosity and obvious joy.