A Pleasing Chamber Prom Antidote to an Unseasonal Deluge

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United KingdomUnited Kingdom BBC Chamber Prom 8 – Barber, Debussy and Shostakovich: Emerson Quartet [Eugene Drucker & Philip Setzer (violins), Lawrence Dutton (viola), Paul Watkins (cello)], Elizabeth Leonskaja (piano), Cadogan Hall London, 31.8.2015 (CS)

Samuel Barber: String Quartet Op.11, ‘Molto adagio’
Claude Debussy: Préludes, Book 2, ‘Feux d’artifice’
Dmitry Shostakovich: Piano Quintet in G Minor Op.57

Almost forty years after the ensemble was formed in 1976, the Emerson Quartet has finally made its ‘artist debut’ at the Proms – in this recital with the Georgian pianist Elizabeth Leonskaja at Cadogan Hall, where musically and geographically eclectic idioms were explored, revealing both idiosyncratic traits and some surprising inter-connections.

The slow movement of Samuel Barber’s String Quartet needs almost no introduction. As BBC presenter Petroc Trelawny declared in his opening remarks, the movement composed in 1936 has since become a readily identifiable ‘national tune’ for the United States, best known in the adaptation for full string orchestra.  The Emerson adopted an understated approach, using a full vibrato to give strength and stability to their generally reticent dynamic, though individual entries were gently pointed and defined as the ceaseless stepwise movement of the melody transferred between the voices and registers.  The overall result was a focused tone, redolent with poignancy without undue emotional emphasis, and I was impressed by how quickly the intonation settled – Bb Minor is not an ‘easy’ key for string players.  The unfolding crotchets were evenly stated yet beautifully phrased – especially by first violinist Philip Setzer, who was not afraid to let his sound retreat, forcing the listener to do some work, to follow the melodic meanderings, register small harmonic changes.

The Emerson performed this work standing, with cellist Paul Watkins – who joined the ensemble in 2013 – on a significantly elevated platform.  This certainly gave the players freedom to communicate alertly and intensely with each other, and Watkins’ firm bass provided an assured foundation; entering the melodic ‘searching’, Watkins judiciously employed portamento as an expressive effect, pushing the cello to the foreground. But elsewhere was a rock of tonal security and composure, giving warmth, richness and colour to the overall sound.

The endless invention and glittering display of Debussy’s ‘Feux d’artifice’ (Fireworks) from the second book of Préludes (1911-13) might seem far removed from the hypnotic melancholy of Barber’s lament, but Elizabeth Leonskaja found surprising darkness amid the colourful explosions and vibrant spectacle.  ‘Technically demanding’ doesn’t do justice to the virtuosity required to master Debussy’s innovative pianistic devices and experimental harmonic probing.  Leonskaja surmounted the challenges to give us music which was touching and thought-provoking.  The delicate oscillations of the opening were controlled yet full of anticipatory excitement, with flashes high and low puncturing the circling inner voice, like points of light and bursts of energy against the black of the night sky.  There was mischief and fairy-lightness but also an ominous tread – and great power – as the texture grew thicker and the harmonies more occluded.  Towards the close, the disembodied echo of ‘La Marseillaise’ over a tremolo bass plunged us further into the spirit of Gallic jouissance as candles, rockets, Catherine Wheels and stars were mirrored kaleidoscopically on the waters of the Seine – Debussy’s recollections of Bastille Day celebrations.

‘Feux d’artifice’ is the last prelude of the 24 that form Debussy’s two books – collections which differ from Chopin and Bach in that they are less technical exercises or harmonic investigations than personal outpourings reflecting Debussy’s mood and memories.  The opening movements of Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet Op.57, written in 1940 when the composer was 34 years old, seem to have a more direct line ‘back to Bach’: the first two movements are a Prelude (Lent – Poco più mosso – Lento) and Fugue (Adagio), the profound contrapuntal dialogues of which recall Bach at his most erudite and spiritual (it’s worth remembering that Shostakovich, inspired by Bach, wrote his own set of 24 preludes and fugues for piano, one in each major and minor key).

In some piano quintets – by Schumann, Fauré and Brahms, for example – one of the challenges (for composer and performers) is to balance the relative qualities and strengths of the piano and string voices and achieve an integrated dialogue between them; but, Shostakovich’s spare textures and multi-partite layering allows for soloistic utterance, varied pairings and unified ensemble groupings, without fear of encumbering density.   In these long, massive first two movements, the Emerson and Leonskaja sustained a sheer quality and remarkable clarity.  The piano part was fairly restrained, but the low ‘walking’ left hand was a steadying anchor above which the strings could supply intermittent richness – with Lawrence Dutton’s viola singing most warmly.  There was an almost whimsical feel at times, but focus and intensity were never entirely relinquished, and the fugue built with persuasive momentum and power, recalling at times the unrelenting emotional concentration of the Barber which opened the recital.

The Emerson were seated for the Shostakovich: but I felt that the arrangement pushed violinist Eugene Drucker unnecessarily to the hinterland.  I don’t think it was just because of where I was located in the auditorium, which was fairly central.  Watkins seemed positioned midway in a semicircle framed by Setzer and Dutton with Drucker more distant to the rear of Setzer – perhaps to allow for a direct line of eye contact between Setzer and Leonskaja.  It’s a small matter, as for  most of the time the second violin part spoke eloquently, but there were some occasions in the Fugue where I’d have liked Drucker’s melodies and role in the duets with viola to have come through with greater resonance.

But the bucolic vigour and abandon of the Scherzo: Allegretto quickly swept any such reservations aside.  Employing diverse and perfectly synchronised bowing techniques, the players held back on the sarcasm and embraced the wild joy of this movement.  In the Intermezzo, the balance between the voices did not seem quite right at the start, with Watkins’ pizzicati full and rich, but overly prominent beneath the tentative, sorrowful utterances of the upper voices.  Leonskaja found a more satisfying articulation in her left hand, both when accompanying her own poignant song and when supporting the strings – and she graded the crescendo compellingly towards the impassioned statements of the closing episodes.

Leonskaja’s playful transition from the fading cadence of the Intermezzo into the bright and breezy sweep of the Finale: Allegretto was delightful.  Here there were hints of classical decorum, of the grandeur of a march, and brief echoes of the Intermezzo’s shadows.  The sunshine of the ending seemed genuine in its brightness and warmth, lacking Shostakovich’s perennial cynical bite, and the golden hue blossomed further in the encore, the Scherzo from Dvorak’s Piano Quintet: a pleasing antidote to the unseasonal deluge outside the Cadogan Hall, and a reminder that, despite the close of the August Bank Holiday weekend, summer – and this Proms season – is not quite over yet.

Claire Seymour


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