A Penetrating and Deeply Thoughtful Performance of Elgar’s Piano Quintet

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mozart and Elgar: Heath Quartet (Oliver Heath & Cerys Jones [violins], Gary Pomeroy [viola], Christopher Murray [cello]), James Baillieu (piano), Wigmore Hall, London, 5.1.2016. (CS)

Mozart: Adagio and Fugue in C minor K.546; Piano Concerto in A K.414

Elgar: Piano Quintet in A minor Op.84

The South African pianist James Baillieu is a featured artist at the Wigmore Hall this season, appearing with both singers and instrumentalists in wide-ranging programmes which reflect the breadth of his musical collaborations.  He has even been given his own series, ‘Introducing James Baillieu’, and on this occasion was joined by the Heath Quartet for music by Mozart and Elgar.

Mozart’s three early piano concertos, K.413-415, were written in Vienna and all three were performed at the composer’s Lenten concerts in 1783.  Eager to increase sales of the published scores, Mozart produced an arrangement which might appeal to a domestic market, omitting the original two oboes, two bassoons, two horns and double basses, and re-scoring the work for piano and string quartet.

The opening of the Allegro was sunny and bright; repetitive figurations in the second violin and cello hinted at the original orchestral textures, while Gary Pomeroy’s viola theme was eloquently played.  With the entry of the piano, which was placed behind the four string players, the balance between the players altered and, I felt, never quite settled again.  The ensemble was excellent, the intonation true, and there was fluent conversation between the string players, and between quartet and piano, but the Heath Quartet adopted a slightly reserved approach, while Baillieu’s tone was soft and the articulation fairly gentle: it wasn’t quite ‘soloist and accompaniment’ or fully integrated chamber music – and a subsequent ‘cadenza’ seemed out of place, though it was motivically interesting and musically engaging.  Despite this, Baillieu’s playing was characteristically thoughtful: there were subtle changes of character as the material was transferred between different registers, right-hand melodies were crisp and clean, and the figuration never bombastic.  The piano’s bass lines were attractively shaped and provided strong harmonic direction.

The string introduction in the Andante created an intimate tone which was a fitting preface to Baillieu’s introspective melody, the reverie-like nature of which was enhanced by the decorative gestures.  Diminished harmony added to rootless, improvisatory quality, though the piano’s chordal passage had quiet nobility and focus, enriched by the Quartet’s interjections.  The Allegretto was ebullient, though Baillieu seemed to want to push things forward.  There was much to admire: the tuning in the strings’ octave unison passages was impressively accurate, and Baillieu sought to make much of small details, alternately darkening then brightening the tone, bringing to the fore middle texture business, enlivening the rondo with tight trills.  The players’ enjoyment was evident, and second violinist Cerys Jones’ contribution to the jovial vivaciousness was considerable.  The players captured the ‘cheekiness’ of the first ‘false’ then furtive resumption of the rondo theme and garnered an impetuous energy towards the close.

The Concerto was preceded by Mozart’s Adagio and Fugue in C minor K.546.  The Heath Quartet made much of the contrast between the dramatic energy of the Adagio’s opening dotted rhythms and the reticence of the veiled semitonal murmurings which follow.  Although the players took a little while to settle, the tempo was flowing and the mood dignified.  The Fugue was vigorous, and Christopher Murray’s fluid bass line kept things moving along, though I found the middle voices a little too prominent which resulted in a lack of transparency at times.  The players pushed the competing voices robustly onwards, and the concluding passage was rich and full.

A more satisfying fusion of piano and strings was achieved after the interval, in a penetrating and deeply thoughtful performance of Elgar’s 1919 Piano Quintet.  Brian David’s programme notes emphasised the Brahmsian influence evident in the work, but from the first fragmented stutterings of the strings above the piano’s low invocation, mysterious and challenging, it was the very ‘modern’ nature of the Quintet which seemed to my ears to be most compelling.  There was a greater weight and density to the sound – however translucent the texture – than had been present in the Mozart concerto; perhaps fittingly, but it inferred a more probing engagement with the musical material too.  The complex structure of the Moderato with its folky interjections – here played with a sultry string tone, contrasting with the piano’s dry staccato – was shaped expertly, the elusiveness of the opening gradually acquiring more rhythmic definition and, through Oliver Heath’s poised second subject, melodic direction.  The strong individual lines spoke with a unified voice, and the performers’ technical and interpretative prowess were equally impressive.

Pomeroy’s exquisitely expressive viola melody opened the Adagio, accompanied by the piano’s hymn-like processional tread.  Again the form is complex, and was skilfully mastered; the range of sentiments conjured – turbulence, majesty, mystery and finally peace – conveyed the emotional depth of Elgar’s music, which moves from gentle melancholy to yearning anguish.   And there were further paths to travel in the final movement, Andante – Allegro, which in the central section took some eerie turns, before the animation and expansion of the concluding bars suggested relaxation and resolution.

Elgar’s chamber music has never been as popular as his orchestral and choral works.  Baillieu and the Heath Quartet made a persuasive case for the Piano Quintet, conveying an innate appreciation of the ‘give and take’ which creates the characteristic restlessness of spirit so often present in the composer’s music, while still achieving a strong sense of unity.

The Quintet will be performed again at the Wigmore Hall, by the Takács Quartet and pianist Aleksandar Madžar, on 3rd February, while Baillieu returns to the Hall on 10th January with his oft partner, mezzo-soprano Anna Huntley – the recipient of the 2011 Wigmore Hall/Independent Opera Voice Fellowship.

Claire Seymour

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