String Trio in G minor, ‘Variations on a Russian Theme’
Piano Quartet in E, Op.20
Leopold String Trio [Isabelle van Keulen (violin), Lawrence Power (viola) & Kate Gould (cello)
Alexander Madzar (piano)
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 7 October, 2010
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London
If Borodin’s early chamber music (as with that of Glinka a generation earlier) is a story of potential rather than attainment, the G minor Variations (1855) has a significance out of all proportion to its brevity – the folksong and (six) variations derived from it outlining a procedure that two generations of Russian composers were to mine intensively. And, though written for two violins and cello, there is no reason why the second violin line should not (as here) be transposed for viola – enabling the music’s motivic and textural ingenuity to take on greater expressive import, as in the present performance.
That the players requested no applause between the works in the first half says much for their appreciation of the link between Borodin’s opus and the String Trio (1985) that Schnittke wrote to commemorate the centenary of Berg’s birth. In the wrong hands, this can take on the trappings of an interminable valediction, but this account brought a sustained emotional charge to the combative opening movement – its elements of sonata and rondo forms not so much fusing as colliding in a process of fractured continuity – such that its fatalistic successor could assume the necessary inwardness. Perhaps balance was marginally weighted in favour of the former movement, yet there was no lack of continuity or intensification across the half-hour span – not the most wide- ranging piece from the composer’s polystylistic phase, but arguably the most focused and cohesive.
Contrast aplenty with Taneyev’s Piano Quartet (1906) that occupied the second half. The composer’s chamber music has found favour over recent years (not least thanks to the retrospective that Steven Isserlis curated at the Wigmore back in 2002), and if the present work is marginally less achieved a work than the Piano Quintet, it is no less substantial or imposing. Together with Alexander Madzar, the Leopold Trio had the full measure of its first movement, pivoting between the impetuous and the rapt on the way to a decisive outcome, and if the second movement’s scherzo-like central section was not quite seamlessly integrated into the prevailing Adagio, there was no lack of characterisation – not least in the ecstatic return of the main theme. Nor was the finale anti-climactic – its vigorous onward drive flexible enough to accommodate more relaxed episodes as well as a fugal development of the main theme, while the crowning return of the Adagio melody brought an apotheosis that was not allowed to outweigh the rapt coda.
Given the Leopold Trio has already recorded Taneyev’s string trios (for Hyperion), is it too much to hope this ensemble will be taking the present work into the studio?