2015 Draws to a Close with Fine Schumann from the Modigliani Quartet

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Schumann: Modigliani Quartet [Philippe Bernhard, Loïc Rio (violins), Laurent Marfaing (viola), François Kieffer (cello)], Beatrice Rana (piano). Wigmore Hall, London, 30.12.2015. (MB)

String Quartet no.3 in A major, op.41 no.3

Piano Quartet in E-flat major, op.47

Piano Quintet in E-flat major, op.44

My 2015 concert calendar opened with Schumann, courtesy of Jonas Kaufmann, and closed with Schumann. It also opened and closed at the Wigmore Hall. The Modigliani Quartet, joined by Beatrice Rana, offered a fascinating selection of chamber music from 1842, starting with the A major String Quartet, op.41 no.3.

The first movement’s echo – surely a conscious tribute? – of Beethoven’s op.31 no.3 Piano Sonata was clear. Sadness, however, differentiated it. What followed was Romantically developed, that sadness never, quite rightly, being entirely banished. The players offered a glowing Romantic tone: no fashionable withdrawal of vibrato or other expressive parsimony here. What we heard was, at times, short-breathed, but in a positive sense; so is Schumann’s writing, or at least it can be. The unease of syncopation was quite disconcerting. There was, moreover, real pain to be heard during the development, especially from Laurent Marfaing’s viola and François Kieffer’s cello; this was not a performance to offer sacrifices upon the altar of ‘mere’ beauty. Indeed, in some ways, this sounded a later work than it actually is. That sense of trouble persisted with the syncopations of the second movement. Bachian counterpoint seemed almost to win out over the Beethovenian tendencies still stronger in the preceding movement, but truly Schumannesque ‘character’ eventually called into question such easy typologies. It was difficult, though, not to experience a haunting from the world of Schubert and Death and the Maiden. Classical restraint returned (more or less) in the slow movement, perhaps closer to Schumann’s celebrated, if wrong-headed, conception of Mozart. It sang, though, and the path upon which it proceeded was very much Schumann’s own. This was an ‘involved’ performance in the best senses, burdened and liberated by cross-rhythms. The finale sounded, quite rightly, as if possessed by an aspirant skittishness which could not quite become the real, or at least the unmediated, thing. This was a Haydnesque ‘as if…’. Energy and physicality were here very much the hallmark of the Modigliani Quartet’s performance.

Philippe Bernhard left the stage for the Piano Quartet, the remaining trio joined by Beatrice Rana. I was not quite so convinced by her contribution, which often sounded a little reticent, although there was nothing in particular to complain about either. At any rate, the introduction to the first movement sounded full of potential, not unlike that to a Haydn symphony. And indeed, Schumann’s Classical inheritance here sounded much stronger throughout much of the movement, indeed the work. He is, perhaps, less enigmatic here, although the work is certainly not without its mysteries. The scherzo was taken very fast, yet without sounding in the least unduly driven. Mendelssohn, the quartet’s dedicatee, seemed present, albeit darkened, more troubled. The slow movement offered straining after Beethovenian sublimity, the music again finding an alternative, compelling way. Here, the ‘as if…’ was more Mozartian. Melody was heart-rendingly enthroned, yet never quite secure in that enthronement: the performance was all the more touching for it. Virtuosic high spirits came to the fore, at least sometimes, in the finale: what string playing this was!

After the interval, we heard all five players in the Piano Quintet. Earlier this month, I heard a very fine performance from the Quatuor Ebène and Mitsuko Uchida; at the time, I lamented that we did not hear this work more often. ‘Maybe “we” do,’ I added, ‘and I have just been unfortunate in missing out on performances.’ Indeed! This performance had little to fear from comparisons with its exalted predecessor. Rana’s playing gained in character, and if it could hardly be said to rank with that of Uchida’s, then we should remind ourselves that music-making is not, or should not be, a competition. On its own terms, there was much to enjoy, and the Modigliani players were excellent indeed. The first movement was forthright yet flexible. ‘Soloists’ from the strings were probably more Romantically yielding than their Ebène counterparts; one ‘duet’ from viola and cello had one’s heart stop. Perhaps that was occasionally at the expense of the last degree of structural cohesion, but if so, the expense was slight. The second movement was characterised by interplay, indeed a dialectic, between the initial, Schubertian note of grim determination and melodic necessity. The strings offered Romantic – and romantic – intensity in an extremely powerful reading. Not for the first time, I found myself having to ‘backdate’ Brahmsian qualities. The scherzo was lively, goal-oriented, again without sounding hard-driven. Rana contributed some splendidly pellucid piano playing. Schumann’s finale benefited from playing that was similar – and yet, in context, different. There was a vehemence that Brahms would surely have admired, which yet, in the twinkling of an eye, transformed itself into something other.

Mark Berry

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