Characterful Musical Arguments from the Cuarteto Casals at Wigmore Hall

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Haydn, Prokofiev, Brahms: Alexander Melnikov (piano), Cuarteto Casals [Abel Tomàs & Vera Martínez Mahner (violins), Jonathan Brown (viola), Arnau Tomàs (cello)], Wigmore Hall, London, 20.9.2018. (CS)

Alexander Melnikov (c) Marco Borggreve
Alexander Melnikov (c) Marco Borggreve

Haydn – String Quartet in F minor Op.20 No.5
ProkofievVisions fugitives Op.22
Brahms – Piano Quintet in F minor Op.34

This recital by the Cuarteto Casals was characteristically vivid, meticulously executed and thought-provoking.  On the two previous occasions I have heard the Quartet perform at Wigmore Hall (2014 review, 2015 review) their programmes have been entirely Classical, and the four musicians challenged me to consider familiar works anew – and succeeded.  Here, they ventured into Romantic territory when they were joined by pianist Alexander Melnikov for the Piano Quintet in F minor by Johannes Brahms, but though the music-making was no less distinctive in conception, and the technical assurance once again impressive, I found the result less convincing.   id

However, we started with a strikingly forthright, even flamboyant at times, performance of the fifth of Haydn’s Op.20 quartets.  Abel Tomàs was a purposeful and characterful occupant of the leader’s chair, often holding his violin quite high, turning to his fiddle-partner Vera Martínez Mahner as they created vigorous dialogues between the two violins.  The Spanish-based ensemble have a distinctive sound – they play with a matching set of period bows – but they also have strong independent voices, and sometimes I found that individual declarations outweighed the ensemble blend, though this did make for vigorous counterpoint particularly in the first movement Allegretto moderato in which the textural diversity is marked.  There was a strong sense of journeying, and conflict, with arresting dramatic contrasts – sometimes Tomàs’ tone seemed a little harsh to my ear – but the development was sensitively played and leaned more satisfyingly towards the music’s intimated tragedy.

In the Menuetto the angular melodies flowed persuasively as the Cuarteto Casals again made much of the contrast textural changes; after such complexity, the subsequent major-key Trio offered a welcome simplicity and relaxed warmth.  An effective tempo was found for the Adagio, allowing the melody to breathe but not wilt and the first violin’s decorative passage-work to flutter rather than scurry.  And, one felt that the players relished Haydn’s characteristic idiosyncrasy in the fugal final movement with replaces the genre’s ‘usual’ light-hearted scamper: again, tonal distinctiveness and independence was perhaps prioritised over equality of voices within the contrapuntal ensemble, but the sudden canonic eruption at the close, after the prevailing whispering of Haydn’s interweavings, inversions and inventions, was terrific musical theatre.

After such dramas, Prokofiev’s Visions fugitives (1915-17) offered an otherworldly contrast, pianist Alexander Melnikov favouring the ethereal beauty of these fleeting visions over the mechanistic brutality which explodes intermittently and which reminds us, perhaps, that these miniatures were composed during a time of revolutionary unrest in Russia.  Elegance, clean tone, clarity of texture, deftness of touch: such were the hallmarks of this somewhat introspective performance, in which Melnikov focused on the serious sensibility of these fragments rather than their showy virtuosity and violence.  That’s not to suggest that there was not colour, contrast and animation: the purity and poise of the opening Lentamente were nudged aside by the capriciousness of the following Andante; the jazzy syncopations of the Allegretto (III) were kicked into touch with quasi-supercilious ease by the crystalline, staccatos of the racing Animato (IV).  But, it was the beauty of the arching phrases of Con eleganza (VI), the disturbing mysteries of Inquieto (XV), the transparency of the voice-leading in Dolente (XVI) and the delicate, subtly weary leggiero of Poetico (XVII) which were most affecting.  Melnikov had no trouble despatching the motoring ostinatos of Commodo (VIII) or the spiteful jabs and jerks of Feroce (XIV), but I didn’t sense that almost maniacal obsessiveness in the poundings and outbursts that seem to suggest uncontrollable rage.  And, shouldn’t the Molto giocoso (V) and the Ridicolosomente (X) make us feel that Prokofiev is playing a wry joke on us?  Melnikov preferred to find the wistfulness rather than the wit, most especially in the concluding Lento, but he did that with touching directness of expression in which simplicity proved the conduit to profound sensitivity.

And, so, on to Brahms’s Piano Quintet which followed the interval.  I don’t want to suggest that I did not enjoy this performance – it’s one of my favourite chamber works, and, in any case, I tend to the ‘anything by Brahms’ school of preference – or that the Cuarteto Casals and Melnikov did not offer plentiful musical morsels for cogitation.  Vera Martínez Mahner had taken the leader’s role and the sonic canvas was enlarged and enriched, but this did not alter Quartet’s characteristic intensity of thought and execution; there was not one phrase that did not convey a carefully considered musical argument while retaining some room for spontaneity.  The balance between strings and piano was very good, and Melnikov exercised a chameleon-like control on his tone and colour, at times matching and merging with the strings, elsewhere standing out with distinctive authority.  But, somehow, despite all the musical and technical elements to admire, and on which to reflect, this performance seemed to me to be too intellectually restless, always roving into new ideas, never allowing me to relax fully into its warm embrace.

There was the merest remnant of Prokofiev’s otherworldliness in the opening phrase of the Allegro non troppo: just a hint of restraint that served only to create a mood of anticipation, which was duly fulfilled with the explosive outburst of fire and fury which follows.  Dynamic contrasts were again emphasised, the tone varying from eerily blanched pianissimos to febrile fortissimos which fairly burst with passionate intensity, and cellist Arnau Tomàs was a strong presence particularly in the seemingly fractious arguments of the development section.  Melnikov’s scotch-snap was gently articulated at the start of the Andante, un poco adagio – more lullaby-lilt than Hungarian hue – and the strings’ syncopations established a compelling tide-tug; indeed, the articulation of Brahms’s rhythmic debates in this movement was one of the highlights.  It was good to hear the Scherzo played at a pace just a notch under the ‘breakneck’ bar for, again, it foregrounded the players’ creative engagement with the rhythmic structures.  For example, the quiet, floating arcs of the opening seemed grabbed by the scruff of the neck by the contrasting taut tattoo which follows.  But I like to hear more elation in the expansive and majestic theme which the ensemble then share; here, the tone was lyrical and warm, but not to the degree that usually makes it hard for me to suppress a smile of joy.  At the close of the Finale: Poco sostenuto – Allegro non troppo many in the capacity-filled Wigmore Hall rose to their feet in admiration so perhaps the cause of my slight reservations lay in my own expectations and predilections.

Claire Seymour

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