Superb Chamber Music in Salzburg

AustriaAustria Salzburg Festival [2] – Prokofiev and Schumann: Martha Argerich & Daniel Barenboim (piano), Michael Barenboim & Mohammed Hiber (violin), Miriam Manasherov (viola), Astrig Siranossian & Adi Tal (cellos), Jussef Eisa (clarinet), Ben Goldschieder (horn). Haus für Mozart, Salzburg, 15.8.2019. (MB)

Prokofiev – Overture on Hebrew Themes Op.34
Schumann – Piano Quintet in E-flat major Op.44
Schumann – Violin Sonata No.1 in A minor Op.105
Schumann – Andante and Variations for two pianos, two cellos and horn in
B-flat major WoO 10

Schumann chamber music, with a Prokofiev overture: in this case a chamber overture, that ‘on Hebrew themes’ Op.34. Martha Argerich and members of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra treated us to a faithful, captivating performance, through the piece’s various twists and turns. Clarinettist Jussef Eisa offered a sinuous Klezmer solo, set nicely against rhythmically insistent playing from the rest of the small band, all of whose solo passages made their mark keenly when required. It is a work I have long held dear, having played the piano part a few times for a sixth-form ensemble. Had I heard Argerich then, I may well have given up in despair – which may or may not have been a good thing.

Schumann’s Piano Quintet likewise brought out the best in its players, the first movement opening forthright, yet soon melting as it should in Argerich’s hands. It would be more or less impossible for her presence not to be first among equals here, but this was true chamber music playing from all concerned, with no sense of being overwhelmed. A cello and viola duet could be just as wonderfully ‘accompanied’ by her – and was. A proper sense of structure becoming dynamic form was felt, the exposition ‘repeat’ no mere repeat, the development duly exploratory. There was sadness, too, in the recapitulation, Schubert’s example perhaps especially apparent both there and in a searching, enigmatic account of the second movement. There were visions of other worlds, yes, but it was not necessarily vouchsafed to us what they were. Argerich on piano proved the securest of foundations for a propulsive scherzo, exultant, whilst nonetheless bearing memorial traces of what had preceded it. Instrumental poetry, ever the key to Schumann, characterised in different ways the two trios. The finale’s character can be difficult to judge, or at least to convey: not so here, its corners navigated with skill and conviction, motivic working and poetic mood as one. Brahms may at times have been but a stone’s throw away, but this remained unmistakably Schumann. Affinity is not, after all, identity.

Having served ably as first violin in both of these works, Michael Barenboim took the stage with Argerich after the interval for the first of Schumann’s violin sonatas. They proved well matched, not unlike the first movement’s Romantic turbulence and Innigkeit. Barenboim’s tone was beautifully centred, with well-judged vibrato and occasional portamento; Argerich was, well, Martha Argerich, the nagging motivic insistence of her part never too much, though how it mattered. The central Allegretto benefited from rapt yet never precious lyricism and an elfin fantasy that again foretold the world of Brahms. Quicksilver changes of mood in the finale, never quite to be likened to one another, were effected by both musicians with ineffable musicality. Instrumental balance was, quite simply, never an issue. (If only I might say the same for student performances I should rather forget…)

The 1843 Andante and Variations for two pianos, two cellos, and horn in B-flat major, WoO 10, is an engaging rarity. In performances that seemed already to look forward to a welcome brace of encores, Argerich and Barenboim senior imparted different yet kindred ‘voices’ to their instruments, without one necessarily being able to say how, let alone why. Much the same might be said of cellists, Astrig Siranossian and Adi Tal. Together with horn player, Ben Goldscheider, the unusual ensemble offered mercurial yet responsive performances; the players drew us in, led us on paths both familiar and surprising. A quotation from Frauenliebe und –leben – aptly, perhaps, for the two female cellists – drew me up sharp. What are we to make of it? Whatever we wish, I suppose. It must surely have made Clara Schumann smile when the work was first played; likewise her piano partner, Felix Mendelssohn.

Mark Berry

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