Schumann
Piano Quintet in E flat, Op.44
Dvořák
Piano Quintet No.2 in A, Op.81
Elias Quartet [Sara Bitlloch & Donald Grant (violins), Martin Saving (viola) & Marie Bitlloch (cello)] with Jonathan Biss (piano)

Recorded 27-30 April 2012 in Wyastone Concert Hall, Wyastone Leys, Monmouthshire, UK
CD No: ONYX 4092
Duration: 71 minutes
Reviewed: December 2012
Although Boccherini’s piano quintets are by no means negligible, Schumann’s in E flat – his finest extended work – is generally held to have initiated the great line of works for piano and orthodox string quartet. It also has an important place in recording history. After receiving his first gramophone and 78rpm records in March 1923, Compton Mackenzie was so bowled over by hearing Ethel Hobday and the London String Quartet in the Schumann that he became an overnight convert and the most important mover and shaker of the industry for the next half-century. That was an abridged recording, as was another acoustic version by Ossip Gabrilowitsch and the Flonzaley Quartet; but in 1927 the latter line-up recorded a complete version that still sounds wonderful today. Schnabel and the Pro Arte were disappointing in the work but fortunately the people who should have been given that HMV assignment, Rudolf Serkin and the Busch Quartet, were able to set down their exceptional interpretation in 1942. It is a blazing performance by five men who knew each other – and the music – intimately. A few favourites from later are Jörg Demus with the Barylli Quartet; Pavel Štěpán with the Smetana Quartet; and Josef de Beenhouwer with the Panocha Quartet, from as recently as 2009. For a high-voltage live performance, Martha Argerich and friends have their followers.
What the best of these performances have in common is their ability to convey the overall structure of this cogently composed work, while also giving free rein to its Romantic expression. The talented American pianist Jonathan Biss and the much-lauded Elias Quartet seem to have recorded their interpretation when it was either too inchoate or too tired. Schumann’s trim tea-clipper is transformed into a leaky, wallowing old barge, at the mercy of every stray wave or gust of wind. They start each movement quite reasonably but soon get into trouble each time. The second subject of the Allegro brillante is held back so noticeably that forward motion is thoroughly impeded. The constant espressivo becomes wearisomely predictable and a movement which should fly along, with the pianist fully extended, becomes a series of lurches. The players seem incapable of holding a tempo for very long, something which becomes even more apparent in the slow-march movement. Again the second theme is held back, almost to a snail’s pace, and when the music speeds up, the tempo is not consistent. The pity of it is that, again and again, the string-players show that they can create magical effects – this second movement ends intensely and quietly. The scherzo has a second trio which is here slightly too fast, spoiling the whole effect; and in the finale we are back to the constant undermining of the structure with misplaced expression. Perhaps these young players felt that they were taking an old-fashioned Romantic view. So I fished out the 1927 Gabrilowitsch-Flonzaley version. But no – those great musicians certainly know how to play with expression, but they do not lay it on with a trowel. With them it arises naturally out of the music and does not impede the flow.
The only version by a non-Czech group to do justice to Dvořák’s wonderful Piano Quintet is the Schubert Ensemble on Chandos. Collectors who want a stylistically conscious recording, and for some reason do not fancy one of the Czech versions, are urgently directed to the Chandos disc. What can I say about the version under review? The players are at their best when eagerly attacking a fast tempo. The trouble is that, as in the Schumann, they cannot hold to it for longer than a few bars. Tempo changes are exaggerated. The strings indulge in a lot of scooping, swooping and swooning, which can be apposite in this music, but it is all done in such a misconceived, generalised way that its effect is lost. Part of the problem is a lack of understanding of Dvořák’s style; but, in addition, the expression is all applied from the outside. I even wonder how well the players knew the music at the time of the sessions: how can the violists play his solos at the start of the ‘Dumka’ with such a lack of conviction and such lumpy phrasing? How can he and his colleagues play so predictably and unimaginatively elsewhere, with phrasing that consistently fails to flower? For the first time in my experience, I caught myself longing for this beautiful movement to end. The last two movements are more enjoyable; yet the playing seems to be reactive rather than masterful.

 

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