András Schiff & Friends – Bartók (1)

String Quartet No.1
For Children [selection]
Three Burlesques
Violin Sonata No.2
String Quartet No.4

András Schiff (piano), Gábor Tákacs-Nagy & Zoltán Tuska (violins), Sándor Papp (viola) & Miklós Perényi (cello)

Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood

Reviewed: 5 June, 2007
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall

In the wave of publicity concerning a certain other event on the South Bank, András Schiff’s mini-festival of Bartók with the Mikrokosmos Quartet, as the musicians are loosely known, has stood in danger of being overlooked. That would sadly seem to be the case from the empty seats for the first night of three.

Each concert is cleverly constructed to focus on two Bartók string quartets, book-ending selections of the piano music that outline the composer’s use of traditional forms and his treatment of folk tunes. As a substantial bonus the first concert included the Second Violin Sonata was also included.

The First String Quartet took a while to find its feet. The baleful opening was made to sound even more so by several tuning issues between the first violin and the other musicians, but this failed to detract completely from the essence of the music. The transition between the first two movements was barely detectable, and Miklós Perényi’s solo work in the latter was impressively wrought. While attention to detail was a strong feature of the performance, particularly between the two violins, the performance was lacking in dynamic variation.

The Fourth Quartet was a completely different story – in fact it was as if a wholly new ensemble were performing. The thrusting fast music of Bartók’s masterful structure had conviction and drive, not to mention dynamic application. The pizzicato fourth movement was carefully detailed also, the dialogue between instruments clearly enjoyed. The sense of occasion was also keenly felt, as if each of these players were experiencing the music on a deeply personal level. This was even amplified in the encore, a movement from the Fifth Quartet’s slow movement.

In direct contrast to the sombre First Quartet, András Schiff offered playful and often-humorous performances of six numbers from the educational miniatures For Children. As any pianist will testify, these are hugely rewarding even in amateur performance, and Schiff was clearly enjoying himself in the staggered march of ‘Pentatonic Tune’ and the forthright ‘Jeering Song’. The cycle also has poignancy, revealed by Schiff in ‘Swineherd’s Dance’, where the dynamic shading as the herd passed by was exquisitely achieved.

It’s often easy for Bartók’s groupings of Central and Eastern European dance-music to be confused, but the Burlesques rightly occupy a central place in his output. ‘A Bit Drunk’, orchestrated as the fourth of the Hungarian Sketches, swayed uncertainly under Schiff’s expertly applied rubato, while the opening Presto benefited from some florid passagework. Schiff flourished in superbly characterised interpretations, full of insight and colour.

Gábor Tákacs-Nagy performed the Second Violin Sonata, given from a seating position. While this aided communication between the two at important junctures of the piece, it also seemed to inhibit the violinist’s tone somewhat. Schiff it was who took the lead in much of the dialogue, which he realised with great expertise and detail – not just dynamically, but in his phrasing, which ranged from the briefest of two-note intervals to sudden flashes of colour in more aggressively played sequences.

Tákacs-Nagy’s violin had a sinewy sound – certainly idiomatic in its treatment of Bartók’s glissandos and harmonics, which he clearly relished. The two were purposeful in the brief C major sections of the second movement, clearly on top of the structural genius evident in the sonata as they brought it to a serene close.

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