Bertrand Chamayou & Belcea Quartet at Wigmore Hall – Shostakovich & Franck Piano Quintets

Piano Quintet in G-minor, Op.57

Piano Quintet in F-minor

Belcea Quartet [Corina Belcea & Paweł Zalejski (violins), Krzysztof Chorzelski (viola) & Antoine Lederlin (cello)] with Bertrand Chamayou (piano)

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 13 April, 2023
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Two Piano Quintets here. culminating in César Franck’s – though both are so emotionally charged that it could have been the other way around – suggesting that this concert may have been a late tribute to that composer after his bicentenary last year. But it certainly reminded that this Quintet (1879) is one of the great monuments of nineteenth-century chamber music, and among various compositions by him which deserve to be better known and performed more frequently.

The highly-wrought character of both Quintets is similar, even if Shostakovich’s is seemingly a melancholic, sardonic, and furious response to the outward conditions of life in Soviet Russia, and more linear as a musical narrative, as compared with the more integrated structure, and inner passion and turmoil of Franck’s work, which some have interpreted as stemming from his romantic feelings for a pupil. The former Quintet (1940) was launched with a hard, assertive attack by Bertrand Chamayou, to which the strings of the Belcea Quartet responded with richly expressive straining – that opening section given out as one long, desperate breath, and setting up the contrasts and correspondences between the two different sorts of timbres from the instruments which played out rewardingly in the rest of this performance.

The succeeding Fugue was still and icy, anticipating the sombre slow movements of the composer’s later minor-key String Quartets – or looking back to the opening fugato of Beethoven’s Opus 131 and recalling Wagner’s words about that movement (‘too profound for tears’) in its numbness. The piano stole in, low and discreet, with a seamlessly blended line, like a double bass to complement the strings above, until the forces together rose to an aggressive climax – though not any faster in tempo or more urgent in overall expression as such, so that the music still felt frustratingly enchained, as Shostakovich himself at the time of composition.

The percussive manner of the Scherzo sparkled in unanimity with a crackling rage as much as joy (even if caustic or ironic). If the slow Intermezzo was lighter in tone than the Fugue, it was no less intense emotionally, leading directly into the Finale, borne along by the rhythmic lilt of the piano like a lullaby, but with bittersweet harmonies making it, at best, ambiguous if not overtly sinister. Chamayou’s crisply articulated but emotionally distant neo-Baroque runs did not clarify the issue, nor the barcarolle-like rocking near to the end over which the strings drifted almost aimlessly, maintaining an enigmatic mood to the conclusion, despite the movement’s apparent levity. 

Corina Belcea’s impulsive, bracing grasp of the first violin’s falling melody (over the other strings’ more reticent chord) at the outset of Franck’s Quintet paralleled the equally uncompromising start of the Shostakovich earlier. Overall, however, there was a more free-flowing force and urgency in the performance, exemplifying Franck’s looser, more cyclical approach to form (reaching its pinnacle in his wonderful Symphony in D-minor, once a favourite with conductors, but now strangely neglected). Rather like the ‘Orpheus taming the furies’ description of the slow movement of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto, Chamayou came consolingly into the slow introduction to the first movement. But the strings won out in exciting the piano to a restlessness and nervousness in the principal faster section, despite some richly expressive interjections from the second violin and viola along the way.

Chamayou and the Belcea members were at one in exuding a Schubertian delicacy in the music’s mysterious harmonic shifts and the haunted line sustained by Belcea in the slow second movement, the hypnotic repetitions of small melodic and harmonic fragments evoking a more troubled version of such rapt movements as the Adagio from the String Quintet or the Notturno for piano trio by Schubert. Chamayou’s pedalling in the middle section rather blurred Franck’s seemingly deliberate reference to the Tristan chord (in fact to the whole of the famous yearning opening of that opera as it rises to its unresolved question) in its several iterations, although that ensured a greater organic unity to the whole movement which was less choppy or disconnected in its various sections as a result.

A sort of quiet benediction was achieved at the end of the movement, before the scurrying repeated figure opening the Finale in the two violins successively reinstated momentum, rather like the start of the equivalent movement of Bruckner’s Third Symphony in the probing character imposed upon it by Paweł Zalejski and then Belcea. Certainly through the strings’ brooding oscillations and the piano’s questing accompaniment, this performance worked towards some purpose, like a Bruckner Finale, reaching an emphatic, powerful end, also like that of the other great essay in the piano quintet genre, Brahms’s Opus 34 (in the same dark key) – though Franck’s concluding unison Fs leave an open question as to whether or not that is a major-key resolution or an exhausted giving up of activity and effort. This engaging performance demonstrated the multi-faceted wonder of the work, as though a symphony in chamber form. 

Recorded for broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Friday April 14 and available on iPlayer for 30 days thereafter

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