United Kingdom Schubert, Weinberg, Brahms: Jerusalem Quartet [Alexander Pavlovsky, Sergei Bresler (violins), Ori Kam (viola), Kyril Zlotnikov (cello)] Sir András Schiff (piano), Wigmore Hall, London, 20.6.2016. (CS)
Schubert: Quartettsatz in C minor D.703
Weinberg: Piano Quintet Op.18
Brahms: Piano Quintet in F minor Op.34
Mieczysław Weinberg is probably not the most familiar of names to grace UK concert programmes. In 2011 Opera North and English National Opera mounted UK premieres of two of his seven operas, The Portrait and The Passenger respectively; while in February this year, Daniil Trifonov and Gidon Kremer performed two of Weinberg’s violin sonatas at the Wigmore Hall, including the fifth sonata which was written shortly after the composer’s release from Moscow’s notorious Lubyanka prison in 1953 and dedicated to his close friend, Shostakovich. But performances of the Polish emigré’s work are still rare.
Born in Poland in 1919, Weinberg moved to Russia following the Nazi invasion of his homeland. During the mid-1940s his music was well-received but he did not escape persecution by the Soviet authorities in 1948 and 1953. Despite being the composer of 26 symphonies, 17 string quartets, concertos, songs, cantatas, not to mention 60 film scores, music for theatre, radio and even the circus he lived out his days in what many believe is unjustified neglect.
This performance of the composer’s Piano Quintet by the Jerusalem Quartet and Sir András Schiff comes 20 years after Weinberg’s death in 1996, the year in which the Jerusalem gave their first public recital – an anniversary which this series of three concerts at the Wigmore Hall celebrates.
The Piano Quintet dates from the end of 1944, and is cast in five movements, recalling the form of Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet of 1940. Shostakovich was a great friend, and mentor, of Weinberg and, on the evidence of this first hearing of the work, a principal stylistic reference in his music. In fact, much of the Quintet sounds just like Shostakovich, with the sardonic bitterness and unremitting bleakness watered down a little. The musical influences are multiple and eclectic though: at times there is a neo-Romanticism in the searching harmonies and long melodic lines; then, there are folk elements – driving rhythms, modal colourings – alluding to Jewish, Polish and Russian cultures. There are flashes of jazz and even cabaret. The polystylism is reminiscent of Schnittke, as is the tendency for astringencies and dissonance to melt wistfully into transient consonance.
Certainly there is a wealth of musical material in Weinberg’s Piano Quintet, but I wasn’t entirely convinced by the relationships formed between the piano and strings or the extravagance of the musical resourcefulness. While the developmental processes are clearly apparent, as motives and material are transformed and transferred, providing coherence, there is a prevailing ‘oppositional’ dialogue between piano and quartet; the piano seems curiously detached, playing alongside or against rather than with the strings. There are exchanges of material, but there seems to be little genuine ‘conversation’ – though, of course, greater familiarity arising from subsequent hearings might alter my opinion.
Despite the considerable technical challenges presented by the piano part, Schiff was a poised and intent participant, seeming scarcely ruffled by the virtuosic demands but unfailingly absorbed. The piano octaves which open the Moderato con moto were chiselled and unbending, while Kyril Zlotnikov’s cello motif – a rocking quasi-cadential figure – was prominent amid the somewhat dry string sound, establishing its importance; it would return and evolve throughout the Quintet. The development brought robust rum-ta-ta rhythms and sparse textures which recalled Shostakovich’s wry angularity.
The Allegretto opened with an eerie waltz-like melody and the movement was a montage of contrasting textures and gestures which the Jerusalem executed with impressive uniformity: swift-bowed marcatos, subdued violin pizzicatos above slippery chromatic slithers by the cello, col legno rattlings with bows dropped vertically onto the strings. Schiff’s piano part interjected restlessly with rapid triplets and trill-like figures. Towards the close, violist Ori Kam crafted a beautiful, angst-laden solo before the movement sank into rest.
A good ensemble balance was achieved in the Presto despite the hectic nature of the piano part. Hard-edged string lines were tempered with occasional tenderness; from slithery gestures, the string players gradually discovered the pulse and melody for which the music searched, the motifs expanding to become ever more complex. Glassy, high piano jangling above pizzicato was both brittle and exhilarating. Interjections from the fairground and jazz club took things in unexpected directions, before the swift ending – which was a little messily executed.
The Largo is the heart of the Quintet, and its introverted opening theme was full of soulful yearning. There was a declamatory intensity about the bare octaves, played by all. Pavlovsky’s high melody surprised with the incisiveness of its attack and its steeliness, but the Jerusalem Quartet’s leader softened the tone with the cello’s entry. The movement incorporates a weighty, cadenza-like passage for the piano, and Schiff explored the extremes of the keyboard’s register, etching the decorative developments with the grace of Chopin arabesques.
The mood of the Largo’s fading close was shattered by the dissonant babbling of the Allegro agitato, like folky scordatura, which was itself superseded by a surprising, playful folk-fiddle jig. Juxtapositions of this wild dance, the piano’s jazzy gestures and reprises of the cello’s opening material from the first movement made for an unsettling medley. But the agitation was allowed to dissolve at the close, the tension dispersing into a tentative consonance. This was a challenging work to take in at a single hearing; I hope I get the chance to hear it again soon.
The concert opened with Schubert’s Quartettsatz D.703 of 1820. When the first completed edition of Schubert’s works was published, in 1897, the editorial board – which included Brahms – judged the Quartettsatz to be of equal merit to the Unfinished Symphony. The Jerusalem Quartet’s 2008 Harmonia Mundi recording of the work, with the composer’s Death and the Maiden quartet was the Gramophone Magazine Editor’s Choice in July that year, BBC Music Magazine’s Chamber Choice in June, and the following year won the ECHO Classic Award for ‘Best chamber music recording of the year’. (The disc has just been re-released as part of a three-CD set to mark the Quartet’s anniversary.)
This performance certainly made the unorthodox form and harmonic relationships lucid and compelling. The players conjured the intensity and eloquence of a Schubert lied, and the striking contrasts of material and texture cohered confidently. The scurrying excitement of the tense opening bars swelled, from the barest tremolo rustlings, through a powerful crescendo creating a strong sense of musical direction. The long-breathed, seamless lines of Pavlovsky’s second subject were clean and cool of tone, above gentle rocking in the middle voices, while the third theme, introduced at the end of the exposition was translucent, the pianissimo triplets perched delicately on warmer pizzicato cello support. When this final theme returned just before the coda, the relaxed major key introduced even more airiness. But a note of drama immediately interceded in the form of the lovely dark cello C underpinning the forte chord which fades mysteriously into Neapolitan harmony, and any sense of repose and tenderness was brusquely swept aside by the explosive reprise of the opening tremolos.
Schiff returned with the Jerusalem Quartet after the interval for a concentrated and intensely committed performance of Brahms’s F Minor Piano Quartet. Somehow, though, despite the stunning homogeneity of ensemble, alertness to nuance, technical precision and concentrated focus, the performance seemed to fall a fraction short of the dynamic vigour that it can stir. Perhaps it was the shining, clean, but rather cold, string tone; my guest, herself a cellist, mused that it was as if the Quartet needed to change their strings for something gutsier. Bow strokes were sure and swift but at moments where one might expect expansiveness, notes were sometimes snatched rather than indulged – as in the heroic march which bursts through the brooding agitation of the Scherzo – creating tense drama but not the luxuriousness that, to me, the music demands. Then, Schiff, always calm and commanding, at times seemed a little removed from the flow of the music’s Romantic force. Finally, the tempos seemed to call for a tad more precipitousness. This was fine playing, but I’d have liked a bit more fire and grandeur.