Benjamin Grosvenor and friends at the QEH excel in Romantic piano quartets

28/02/2020

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mahler, R. Strauss & Brahms: Benjamin Grosvenor (piano), Hyeyoon Park (violin), Timothy Ridout (viola), Kian Soltani (cello). Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre, London, 27.2.2020. (CC)

Timothy Ridout (viola), Kian Soltani (cello), Benjamin Grosvenor (piano) & Hyeyoon Park (violin)
(c) Kathryn Hare

Mahler – Piano Quartet in A minor

R. Strauss – Piano Quartet in C minor, Op.13

Brahms – Piano Quartet No.3 in C minor, Op60

Back in November last year, Benjamin Grosvenor worked with the Britten Sinfonia in a fascinating programme of Bach, Robin Haigh, Mozart, Dobrinka Tabakova and Schubert/Tabakova (review click here). No less enterprising (although in a different way – no contemporary composers) was this exploration of the late Romantic piano quartet repertoire. The amount of repertoire available for piano quartet is less than that for piano quintet and – definitely – that for piano trio. To hear, then, works by Mahler and Richard Strauss against the more expected Brahms was both fascinating and enriching (and there was more Brahms as a substantial encore).

Mahler’s single movement for a piano quartet seems to invite in other movements (they were planned). It is relatively rarely played – I can only think of a couple of Wigmore Hall performances over the years. But it is an intriguing, short work (around 11 minutes). It opens with dark, Brahmsian repeated chords in the lower half of the keyboard over which Mahler weaves string lines. Immediately apparent in the present performance was the excellence of violist Timothy Ridout, whose instrument sang with deep, near-vocal, expression both here and throughout the evening. Hyeyoon Park’s violin was sweetly expressive, with the more restrained Kian Soltani grounding the experience. Mahler gifts the violinist a brief solo cadenza, here despatched with suave style by Park. But the defining moments of this performance came in the held-breath pianissimi. Chamber music at its finest, the instruments carefully and perfectly blended, holding the audience to a compelling silence.

The Richard Strauss Piano Quartet is another gem that has been hanging around the fringes of the repertoire (there is a recording of both works in the first half of this concert on the Ondine label, adding the Schnittke Piano Quintet for good measure). The first movement of Strauss’s Op.13 lasts around a quarter of an hour: it is as expansive as that duration implies. Rarely can this quartet have enjoyed such a committed, compelling performance as Grosvenor and friends delivered. The music moves from Straussian high-Romanticism, with all the heart-on-sleeve moments that phrase implies, to hints – in its harmonic turns and delicacy of scoring – of the highly individual language Strauss was to embrace. The sighing gestures, so meltingly given here, carried real emotive weight. But it was the calibration of the performance that impressed the most, the balance between the instruments a thing of wonder, the long melody in octaves strong and impassioned. The scherzo, marked Presto, has a decidedly Mendelssohnian element, an aspect that was certainly foregrounded here. Grosvenor’s fleetness of finger was incredibly impressive, while Strauss’s use of gesture to effect a return to the scherzo was beautifully honoured in musicianly fashion. The third movement, an Andante that could so easily descend into schmaltz, was instead possessed of otherworldly, bittersweet beauty, its atmosphere swept away by the deliberate heaviness of the finale. And how the players, towards the work’s end, revelled in Strauss’s rhythmic play. A terrific, hour-long first half, full of revelations and not a little joy.

The Brahms C minor Quartet is far better known. It begins arrestingly, a strong octave gesture answered by sighing gestures from the strings that appear to be weighed down with grief, which here found violin and viola in perfect accord. The players here offered lots of dynamism but left space for plenty of contrasts – and it was actually in those contrasting passages that the true magic lay. Perfectly timed exchanges in the volatile second movement Scherzo (beautiful rhythmic play from Brahms) led to an expressive Andante (perhaps just a little more engagement from cellist Kian Soltani would have sealed the deal) before a Finale shot through with the perfect balance of rhythmic impulse and lyricism rounded the evening off perfectly, Grosvenor’s staccato perfectly weighted throughout.

That substantial encore was the Rondo alla zingarese from Brahms’s G minor Piano Quartet, Op.25, in a highly spirited performance, full of vim; just what was needed to send the audience, energised, out into the cold winter’s night.

Colin Clarke

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