String Quartet in C, Op.76/3 (Emperor)
String Quartet in B flat
Piano Quintet in F minor
Chilingirian Quartet [Levon Chilingirian & Charles Sewart (violins), Susie Mészáros (viola) & Philip De Groot (cello)] with Philippe Cassard (piano)
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 16 December, 2012
Venue: Hall One, Kings Place, London
The London Chamber Music Series arrived at its Christmas break with a third recital in the series entitled “The Romantic Piano Quintets”, but such fare was not in evidence during a first half that juxtaposed the best-known piece from what is its composer’s most renowned string-quartet collection with a fascinating work from what might be termed its creator’s formative years.
This latter is the (unnumbered) String Quartet in B flat by Hugh Wood, who turned 80 earlier this year and whose output of chamber music and songs is among the most potent of any composer from the post-war era. Composed in London during 1956 and 1957, premiered at Cheltenham in 1959 then occasionally revived prior to being taken up recently by the Chilingirian Quartet, the fact that it wears its influences on its sleeve should not detract from the effectiveness of the result. Thus the opening Allegro is redolent of Tippett in its sinewy contrapuntal interplay and rhythmic impetus, while the central Adagio looks to Bartók in its fractured lyricism and elegiac withdrawal, before the final Allegro attempts something of an amalgam in terms of its cumulative energy directed towards a plangent culmination and decisive close. Played with keen appreciation of its quirkily compelling stylistic ambit, the piece sounds more in context now than it must have done half-a-century ago – with many younger composers having striven to emulate its brusque and approachable take on mid-century modernism.
Before it was the third of the six string quartets Haydn published in 1797 as his Opus 76. It says much about the extraordinary quality of this final such set that the present piece is remarkable chiefly for its second movement – an ineffably expressive sequence of variations on the composer’s melody ‘Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser’ (hence the ‘Emperor’ nickname) which adheres faithfully to the theme while rendering its accompaniment in varied contexts. The Chilingirian musicians were at their eloquent best here and in the rhythmically agile Minuet that follows, but intonation faltered in the imposing initial Allegro and the final Presto felt a little foursquare: reasons why Haydn is not always the right choice for beginning a recital.
After the interval was César Franck’s Piano Quintet – its appearance in 1879 fairly launched the career of a composer who, then in his mid-50s, had established a modest reputation for his organ and choral output, but for whom chamber and orchestral music thereafter came to the fore. Although dedicated to Saint-Saëns, the influences of Liszt and Wagner are uppermost here: indeed, it might reasonably be argued that, with its heady chromatic quotient and cyclical evolution, this piece (ironically?) marks the onset of the New German School’s precepts in terms of composition. With Philippe Cassard an alert and attentive pianist, the Chilingirian (Charles Sewart ably replacing an indisposed Ronald Birks) made the most of the opening movement’s slow-burning yet cumulative momentum through to its baleful apotheosis, the Lento’s alternation of doubt and repose on the way to its plaintive ending, then the finale’s coursing energy which persists through writing of passionate emotion before reaching its forcefully decisive close.
This was a fine performance as well as an impressive rounding-off of the opening third of a stimulating series that mixes repertoire staples and unfamiliar revivals.