United Kingdom IMS Prussia Cove, Autumn Tour 2018 – Haydn, Kurtág, Janáček, Bartók, Schumann: Alexi Kenney (violin), Tim Crawford (violin), Ulrike-Anima Mathé (violin), Lars Anders Tomter (viola), Adrian Brendel (cello), Marie Macleod (cello), Zoltán Fejérvári (piano), Wigmore Hall, London, 5.10.2018. (CS)
Haydn – Piano Trio in F sharp minor HXV:26
Kurtág – 3 pieces from Signs, Games and Messages
Janáček – String Quartet No.2, Intimate Letters
Bartók – Duos for 2 violins BB104 (selection)
Schumann – Piano Quintet in E flat Op.44
For the talented young musicians invited by Artistic Director Steven Isserlis to participate in the three-week Open Chamber Music Seminar held each September at International Musicians Seminar Prussia Cove, one of the many pleasures and rewards must be the opportunity to explore the chamber music repertoire alongside experienced, senior musicians.
Certainly, in this concert at Wigmore Hall – the final stop on an Autumn Tour which has taken six of this year’s participating musicians from Truro, to Salisbury, Champs Hill and Cambridge – viola player Lars Anders Tomter, described as the ‘Giant of the Nordic Viola’ by The Strad, seemed a pivotal, assuring presence at the heart of the chamber group, inspiring relaxed rapport between the players. Of course, the viola in Leoš Janáček’s Second String Quartet is the barely-disguised symbol and voice of the composer’s passion for Kamila Stösslová, to whom he had written in February 1928, ‘The whole will be held together by a special instrument. It is called the Viola d’amour – viola d’amore. […] In this work I will be alone with you. There will be no third person near us …’ After hearing the Moravian Quartet play through the quartet, Janáček decided that the more robust tone of the viola would create a more equitable balance of voices, but Tomter’s first entry reminded me of the composer’s original intentions, the silvery fragment – a will-o’-the-wisp, fragile but tender – presenting an introspective contrast to the forthright, grainy opening statement of the other strings.
Tomter and his musical partners – violinists Alexi Kenney and Tim Crawford, and cellist Adrian Brendel – relished such paradoxes which both unsettle the work and drive it forward; rasping roughness was countered by blanched sul ponticelli dryness and gentle sweetness. The musicians emphasised the sense of an on-going struggle which occasionally rests in a brief moment of peace and resolution but is more often wild and impassioned, the four voices sometimes simultaneously defining contradictory worlds: as Tomter’s large viola poured out its even stream of glowing sound, Kenney glinted lucidly, Crawford enriched the texture with motoring vigour and Brendel made the cello’s aspiring utterances soar soulfully. They weren’t afraid of the music’s abrasiveness and seemed to find irony in the second movement as the viola’s folk-like lyricism was pushed aside by a steely edginess and taut rhythmic repetitions. The lilt of the Moderato pushed forwards and here, as Kenney’s refined tone climbed high, the textures seemed to clear and open out refreshingly. In the final movement, the musicians conjured the wild fury with polish. If I missed anything here it was a certain fullness, a warm depth of tone that might communicate the visceral passion of this music, which Janáček described to Stösslová as glowing ‘with all the dear things that we’ve experienced together’: ‘You stand behind every note, you, living, forceful, loving. The fragrance of your body, the glow of your kisses – no, really of mine. But the softness of your lips. Those notes of mine kiss all of you. They call for you passionately.’
The concert had opened with the sombre elegance of Haydn’s Piano Trio Hob XV:26, written in the unusual key of F sharp minor, in which violinist Ulrike-Anima Mathé, cellist Marie Macleod and pianist Zoltán Fejérvári found both a restrained seriousness and moments of improvisatory invention. That’s not to suggest that there was not also animation, the brightness of Fejérvári’s tone in particular generating energy in the Allegro. But, if there was occasional glitter it was darkness and gravity which prevailed, which only served to make the radiant warmth of the major-key slow movement all the more intense and the subsequent retreat into the shadows for the minor-key central episode all the more touching. The three musicians found both drama and melancholy in the final movement minuet, establishing a tempo which suggested both a dance and a weighty tragedy.
At times I would have liked Mathé to play with more imposing authority, but the refinement of her tone certainly helped to establish an equality of voices, and the delicate flourishes of the violin’s theme at the start of the Adagio were beautifully executed. After the interval, Mathé was joined by Tim Crawford in seven of Béla Bartók’s 44 Duos for Two Violins, a pedagogic collection composed in 1931 which forms a sort of string complement to Mikrokosmos for piano. Playing with impressive precision, the pair engagingly defined the contrasting character of the impassioned ‘Bánkódás’ (Sorrow) and the intensely mournful, and sumptuously titled, ‘Menyasszonyibúcsúztató’ (Bride’s Farewell), while there were rhythmic high-spirits in ‘Forgatós’ (Rumanian Whirling Dance) and ‘Rutén Kolomejka’ (Ruthenian Kolomejka). Mathé and Crawford brought forth many beautiful details, though in the more vigorous duets I’d have liked a gutsier rawness and a greater sense of expressive freedom, which might more strongly have captured the music’s ethnic soul.
While Bartók’s six string quartets are at the core of the genre, it was good to have the opportunity to hear some of the composer’s less frequently performed music for strings, and we had also been taken to more unusual parts of the chamber music repertoire before the interval when Mathé, Tomter and Brendel performed six of György Kurtág’s continually evolving Signs, Games and Messages. This is not music that is very familiar to me, but it made a strong impression here, largely I think because of the instinctive ‘feel’ for the sonorities and colours that the three musicians displayed. Despite the restless changefulness of the ‘Perpetuum mobile’ with its exuberant gestures and snapping pizzicatos, the tone was light and airy, the spirit never frenetic. ‘Hommage a JSB’ had a muted ethereality, while ‘Jelek VI’ was gritty yet fulsome. The closing ‘Virág az ember’ (Flowers are we), in which the players use metal mutes, was hauntingly fragile and delicate, the players grading the diminishment into nothingness with immense bow control.
Schumann’s Piano Quintet concluded this rich and varied recital, with Kenney and Crawford taking the first and second violinists’ chairs respectively. In the Allegro brillante, there were some lovely rubatos as Tomter and Macleod passed the flowing second subject back and forth, the sound spilling naturally and warmly. The development opened with dramatic rhetoric while, in the recapitulation, Fejérvári emphasised the expansiveness of Schumann’s lyricism. Throughout the movement there was a sense of freshness and exploration. I like a touch more wistfulness in the drooping piano arpeggio that opens the In modo d’una marcia, and the musicians took a little while to settle into the funereal-pulse of this movement. Once again, though, Tomter proved a guiding presence when, interrupting the agitated central section, the viola’s restatement of the theme pointed the way forward with boldness and a through-phrase impetus that had been a little lacking previously. It’s hard to imagine the final Allegro ma non troppo not making its mark and here the closing double fugue flew exhilaratingly. But, it was the Scherzo that was most compelling, scampering exuberantly and breathlessly. When, during the first trio, Fejérvári’s softly unfolding triplets, accompanying the gentle counterpoint between first violin and viola, brought a warm smile to Tomter’s face, it was impossible not to join him.