I Musicanti Offer Playing of Great Dynamism, Coherence and Character – and an Enterprising Programme

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Dvořák, Beethoven and Smirnov: I Musicanti [Martin Roscoe (piano), Zsolt-Tihamer Visontay & Fenella Humphreys (violins), Robert Smissen (viola), Richard Harwood (cello), Leon Bosch (bass)], Kings Place, London, 1.5.2016. (CS)

Dvořák: String Quintet in G Op.77
Smirnov: Piano Quintet Op.72
Beethoven, arr. Lachner: Piano Concerto No.4 in G Op.58

I Musicanti comprises a stellar co-operative of musicians, hand-picked by the ensemble’s artistic director, Leon Bosch.  Violinist Zsolt-Tihamer Visontay is Concert-Master of the Philharmonia Orchestra, while Fenella Humphreys and cellist Richard Harwood perform widely as soloists and chamber musicians.  Robert Smissen was principal viola with the Northern Sinfonia before joining the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, with whom he has been principal viola for 25 years.  During this time he was a colleague of Bosch, one of a select band of virtuoso double bass players, who was a similarly enduring leader of the ASMF’s bass section before he stood down in 2014 to focus on solo and chamber playing.  For four decades pianist Martin Roscoe has been one the UK’s most acclaimed soloists, renowned for his versatility and his thoughtful musicianship.

Chamber music is a ‘team game’ though. It’s easy to think of corresponding contexts where the gathering together of striking individual talent hasn’t made for collective success – think UK sprint-relay teams of recent years! – and as I had not previously heard the group perform, I was keen to hear how the virtuosic ‘voices’ blended as a ‘choir’ in this concert, the first that the ensemble have presented in the LCMS series.  Bosch explains that I Musicanti ‘embodies the universally cherished ideal of total artistic freedom and unrestrained self-expression, and it aims to provide a home to creative and imaginative artists who share the ambition of realising this dream.’ It was immensely gratifying to find that the playing certainly did demonstrate communal confidence, and both unrepressed individuality and a strong collective expressive profile.

Bosch devises distinctive programmes with a particular emphasis on music that has been lost or neglected, and here the group presented an imaginative programme which included a seldom heard chamber work by Russian Dmitri Smirnov, who is one of a considerable number of composers – including Gubaidulina, Ustvolskaya, Schnittke and Firsova – from the former Soviet Union who established reputations in the West in the period following glasnot and perestroika.  It was good to have an opportunity to hear his unusually scored Piano Quintet (1992) – for violin, viola, cello, double bass and piano – a work which, at roughly twenty minutes is quite compact, presenting strong contrasts between lyrical and ethereal worlds and more tempestuous realms, and neatly dovetailing the two.

The opening bars of the Quasi allegro first movement unleashed a powerful, intensely discordant ‘storm’ of apocalyptic piano chords and frenetic string activity, but the music gradually subdued itself from within through the piano’s rhythmic repetitions, tight viola and cello trills and a drone from the double bass which anchored the material like a plumb, while the piano etchings and string pizzicato explored above.  Smirnov studied at the Moscow Conservatory under Nikolai Sidelnikov, Yuri Kholopov and Edison Denisov but also privately with Philip Herschkowitz, a pupil of both Webern and Berg, and after the dissonant opening, the music seemed to owe more to the latter, employing the language of post-Bergian Romanticism.  It was no surprise to read Smirnov’s account of the harmonic structure of the work, which he describes as based on a 12-tone row that has very clear tonal implications, consisting of four triads: C minor, E major, B flat major and F sharp minor: so, not worlds away from the sort of tonal associations that characterise the row that commences Berg’s Violin Concerto.

And there were other influences apparent too, not least the underlying folksiness of some of the melodies, such as an engaging theme for viola, and a double bass melody which was passed, in a free spirit, to the violin, whose dialogue with the viola was then joined by a clear, singing cello melody. At such moments, the tonal beauty of the individual players’ sounds was hugely compelling and the music was most alluring when the textures were pared down in this way.  The motifs of the brief Andantino con moto were enigmatic and elusive, the textures transparent.

The final Andante cantabile – Presto was the most substantial movement, incorporating strongly defined melody and joyous ‘clanging’ of bells from the piano, whose entry literally shook with vibrancy and power.  In a ‘race’ to the conclusion, the piano seemed to be locked in battle with the ever more furious strings – at times Visontay seemed almost to leap from his chair – but as at the start of the work, serenity was imposed.  Over a long double bass pedal, Visontay spun a wonderful, otherworldly thread – diaphanous, crystalline and pure – at the top of the E string.  I was impressed, too, by his firm, confident leadership and absolute grasp of the score in its entirety.

The concert began with Dvořák’s Second String Quintet in G. After the dark opening of the Allegro con fuoco it was a pleasure to hear the individual players contributing vigorously to the highly rhythmic fabric while retaining their strongly defined, independent qualities.  Visontay’s perfectly centred pitching and penetrating clarity were complemented by Humphreys’ golden cantabile tone which infused warmth and freshness into the inner lines.  The elegance of Bosch’s bass tone was nicely supplemented by Smissen’s assured and dynamic contributions – the two former orchestral colleagues seemed to instinctively listen out and engage with each other’s predominant motifs.  Cellist Richard Harwood produced a soft-grained tone of utter beauty, shining through the texture with litheness and precision.

The Quintet was composed in 1875 when Dvořák was in his thirties. It won him a stipend of 400 Gulden from the Vienna Education Ministry and was performed in Prague the following year but twelve years passed before it was published, labelled as Op.77 though the composer considered it his Op.18.  It is not difficult to hear in its melodic invention, the open-hearted warmth of the Fifth Symphony and E major Serenade for Strings, also composed in 1875, and in I Musicanti’s hands the first movement was an unceasingly passionate flow, with the addition of the double bass to the usual string quartet texture adding sonority and spaciousness.

The players ripped through the chord which kick-starts the Scherzo: Allegro vivace, the momentum generated seeming to propel Visontay’s flying up-bows with astonishing swiftness in the dancing triplet motif that follows.  The graceful ease of the Trio was never allowed to relax into lassitude, underpinned as it was by alert pizzicato stimuli from the lower voices.  The song-like Poco andante possessed an almost Schubertian lyricism, the folky themes tinged with melancholy as they roved through enchanting twists and turns, at times swelling with dark intensity.  As the melodies become more elaborate, Dvořák makes considerable technical demands on all the players, but I Musicanti were unruffled and Visontay’s lightly oscillating octaves and running passages decorated delicately.

In the Finale: Allegro assai Bosch assumed a more prominent role within the busy textures, playing with lovely roundness and richness.

To conclude the concert, the five string players were joined once again by Martin Roscoe for Franz Lachner’s arrangement of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.4 in G. The persuasive musicianship, technical brilliance and engaging tone – constantly nuanced, endlessly variegated – that had characterised Dvořák’s Quintet were in equal evidence here.  It would have been easy just to sit back and enjoy, but my ear was kept alert by the unusual shifts in emphasis that Lachner’s re-arrangement brings about.

Of all the composer’s Piano Concertos the Fourth is the most intimate, with fewer bravura and more chamber qualities, and – though I was a little surprised by Roscoe’s initial solo statement of the theme, which was more obviously self-assured than reflective – this tenderness was in evidence during the piano-string interchanges at the opening of the Allegro moderato.  What was most striking, though, was the way the first movement cadenza assumed a more dominating stature, towering over the whole movement.  This is not to suggest that Roscoe was overly assertive, rather that without an orchestral context from which it can arise and into which the cadenza’s arguments can be assimilated, the piano’s rhetoric acquired the quality of a self-generating dramatic monologue, somewhat detached from the ongoing narrative.  Roscoe’s thoughtful musicianship was absorbing, however, and it was interesting to watch the other players respond to the piano’s soliloquy: Visontay turning towards the keyboard, raptly attentive; Smissen staring intently into the middle distance; Humphreys contemplating with eyes closed, a gentle sway indicating her immersion.

The addition of double bass helped to give weight to the strings’ ardent sequences in the Andante, and once again the tonal beauty and impeccable intonation was impressive.  Inevitably, the possible range of dynamics and texture is diminished in the arranged form, but I Musicanti emphasised the combination of tension and rapport with which piano and strings exchange ideas in this movement, and the close faded to a whispered pianissimo. The Rondo: Vivace danced and sang to an exuberant conclusion.

So, take six superb solo musicians, add three infrequently performed works of diverse style and form, give the mix a gentle stir … and the result is playing of great dynamism, coherence and character.

Claire Seymour


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