The Allegri String Quartet and Maria Meerovitch: Not Quite a Settled Partnership

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Haydn, Busoni, Schumann and Brahms: Allegri String Quartet (Martyn Jackson & Rafael Todes [violins], Dorothea Vogel [viola], Vanessa Lucas-Smith [cello]), Maria Meerovitch (piano), King’s Place, London, 10.1.2016. (CS)

Haydn: String Quartet in B-flat, Op.9 No.5 Hob.III/23

Busoni String Quartet No.2 in D minor, Op.26

Schumann: Romance in F-sharp, Op.28 No.2

Brahms: Piano Quintet in F minor, Op.34

This concert offered the first opportunity to hear the Allegri Quartet – which was founded in 1953 by Eli Goren and William Pleeth – perform with their new leader, English violinist Martyn Jackson, who replaces Ofer Falk, the Quartet’s leader of more than 20 years.  Most recently, Jackson has led the Cavaleri Quartet, but he has also appeared as guest leader of the Allegri and Tippett Quartets, as well as serving as guest Assistant Concertmaster of the London Symphony Orchestra, the Philharmonia and the BBC Scottish Orchestra. 

The first item on the programme, Haydn’s String Quartet in B-flat, Op.9 No.5 suggested that Jackson is a ‘good fit’.  The Allegri immediately settled into a spirit of Classical grace and composure in the Poco adagio theme and variations which opens the quartet, and throughout the movement the players focused more on conveying the character of the theme than on matters of dynamic and textural contrast.  Jackson was a reassuringly secure and unperturbed leader, and the four string voices blended warmly and pleasingly.  A flowing tempo ensured that the elaborations of the theme were underpinned by sustained forward motion: Jackson’s initial decorations were fluent and engaging, while the rapid passage work of variation three was effortlessly despatched.  Cellist Vanessa Lucas-Smith beguilingly phrased the running sextuplets which lead the second variation and enhanced the animation of the whole movement.  I’d have liked to have heard more from second violinist Rafael Todes, whose part did not always carry to the fore of the conversation. 

The ornamental turn, followed by a rising leap, which characterises the theme of the Menuetto: Allegretto was stylish and neat, and there was a compelling fluidity about the short Trio with its third-beat accents.  Dorothea Vogel’s viola part entwined pleasingly within the two violin lines and Lucas-Smith’s pedals provided unobtrusive support.  All four players contributed to the beautiful song of the Largo; the tone was warm but slightly veiled, suggesting restraint and modesty.  As the movement progressed, first cello and then viola were increasingly prominent, and the contrast between the rich writing for the bass and the high embellishments of the first violin – played with exquisite sweetness by Jackson – was counter-balanced by more assertive interjections by Todes.  The Presto finale was bright and optimistic in spirit.  Again, Jackson led firmly but without mannerism; his intonation was flawless in the higher lying passagework, though I did feel that he was pushing the tempo a little ahead of his Quartet partners, and at times this did affect the assurance of the ensemble.

To mark the 150th anniversary of the birth of the Ferruccio Busoni, the Allegri presented one of the composer’s early works – the Second String Quartet, dating from 1887. This quartet is seldom performed, but weighty and rich in contrapuntal dialogue and Romantic feeling.  If Haydn’s quartet had been notable for its Classical refinement, the opening chords of Busoni’s first movement, Allegro energico, signalled an abrupt change of ambience: there was a Brahmsian intensity and restlessness, as the members of the Allegri engaged in feverish statement and urgent argument.  I was particularly impressed by the way Lucas-Smith injected compelling rhythmic dynamism: the cello’s thematic contributions and, especially, pizzicato gestures propelled the music onwards.  Occasionally, in the complex exchanges of the development, the ensemble rocked a little; but, the Allegri had a strong sense of the movement’s overall form, and the closing passage effectively recalled the opening and was satisfyingly structured. 

In the Andante energico, the cello’s rising fourths and fifths were an eloquent spur for the resourceful elaborations in the upper voices.  The gentle yearning quality that the Allegri conjured suggested the shadow of Dvořák falling across this music.  The Vivace assai was a perpetuum mobile, contained within a quiet dynamic, in which Vogel’s running motifs seemed to propel from within the texture, with focused incisiveness.  The rhythmic complexities of the slower central section – syncopations, triplets, dotted motifs – were skilfully combined in a reflective and probing manner, and the brief restatement of the opening material was excitingly pacy and brusque, while the chromatic meanderings of the coda slithered imaginatively.  The Andantino which presages the final Allegro con brio was grave and imposing, the subsequent dance light and agile; the viola, again, provided dynamism from within, and the control and co-ordination of bow stroke and articulation was once more impressive, particularly in the more athletic passages. 

In the second half of the programme, the Allegri Quartet were joined by Russian pianist Maria Meerovitch, who ‘warmed up’ which Schumann’s F-sharp Romance – I’m not sure for what other reason this short work was added to the advertised and substantial original programme – demonstrating an innate identification with Schumann’s Romantic sensibility and employing flexible rubato with compelling cogency.

Brahms’s Piano Quintet in F minor, Op.34 is, for me, the pinnacle of the composer’s chamber music, and it would be almost impossible for an even semi-competent performance of the work not to provide deep pleasure and satisfaction.  And this rendition was certainly technically accomplished and musically thoughtful.  But it was marred by discrepancies between Meerovitch’s and the Allegri’s conceptions – of tempo, particularly, but also of sentiment.  Meerovitch tended towards the insistent and pressing, and was frequently a crucial microsecond ahead of her string-playing collaborators.  Furthermore, while the Allegri saved their most declamatory outbursts for pivotal moments, Meerovitch, though playing with crispness and clarity, often – especially in the first two movements – overpowered the more nuanced string playing.

The theme in octaves, for first violin and piano, which begins the Allegro non troppo, was quite restrained and consequently seemed portentous, but from its constrained boundaries sprang an intense and explosive development of the material, troubled and agitated, growing in tempestuous argument – above which Jackson’s impressively crystalline high E-string contributions floated authoritatively.  But, Meerovitch’s tendency to push the tempo resulted in some unsettled ensemble in the recapitulation section.  Things recouped in the coda, where the roving string lines were underpinned by the cello’s focused restatement of the theme, and the various voices came together to articulate a coherent intensification towards the close.

In the Andante, un poco adagio I’d have liked a more subtle ‘sway’ in the piano part, which might have expressed both outer stillness and innate expressive life.   On occasion I felt Lucas-Smith was too theatrical, the pizzicato motifs too percussive and obtrusive.  But the restatement of the opening theme was beguilingly articulated by Jackson, and in the closing passages the tempo seemed to settle unanimously and fluently, and the strings blended beautifully.  The Scherzo went at a lick; I’d have liked a bit more ‘space’ in the chordal pronouncements, but the ferocity and impetuousness was consistent.  The motivic interchanges were ‘dry’ and persistent, and the fugal passages were excitingly brisk and vigorous.  But, despite the invigorating fury of the close, the slippage between the piano – though the lines were crisp and clear – and the strings was disconcerting.

There was some wonderfully free and ghostly playing in the Finale, with subterranean energies constantly pressing against the restrained mystery of the ‘surface’.  The pensive introductory passage was endowed with a judiciously restrained vibrato, before the cello led the way to grandeur.  But reticence was continually interspersed with declamatory confidence and exuberance, and the concluding Presto injected fresh excitement and vigour, with the string players not afraid to throw their bows at the strings to generate passion and impulsiveness.  This was a performance that was both frustrating and gripping, in equal measure.

Claire Seymour

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