Fidelio Piano Quartet

Dvořák
Piano Quartet No.2 in E flat, Op.87
Brown
Piano Quartet
Brahms
Piano Quartet No.3 in C minor, Op.60

Fidelio Piano Quartet
[Tamás András (violin), Sarah-Jane Bradley (viola), Gemma Rosefield (cello) & Inon Barnatan (piano)]


Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 22 February, 2006
Venue: Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Birmingham

With something of the poise of the piano trio, and the impact of the piano quintet, the piano quartet has often appeared to be a ‘half-way house’ within the mixed ensemble genres. So all credit, then, to the Fidelio for being expressly a piano quartet and concentrating on the medium accordingly.

And, dominated by the nineteenth-century in general, and Brahms and Dvořák in particular, it is a medium that certainly needs such groups to champion its cause and actively to expand its repertoire. Which is just what the Fidelio Piano Quartet has been doing over recent years – and, in the Piano Quartet (2004) by James Francis Brown, come up with a piece both formally ingenious and musically engaging.

Cast in a single movement of some 16 minutes duration, Brown’s quartet grows in all respects from the sanguine opening idea that soon broadens emotionally – a slower but more restive second theme emerging before the music plunges into a powerfully sustained development and a tonally modified reprise. The work then heads into what appears to be a slow coda; one which, like that of Brown’s Violin Sonata, distils the music’s harmonic trajectory to subtle and touching effect. Here, though, it is but preparation for the real coda: a distinct section building rapidly in momentum to end the work in a vigorous and demonstrative manner. Maybe a similar portmanteau conflation of slow movement and finale would lead to a design of even greater formal and expressive breadth? Whatever, this is a distinctive addition to a not over-large repertoire, and well deserves the advocacy that the Fidelio has given it over the last two years. It also confirms that, along with his Violin Sonata and String Trio, Brown’s contribution to the chamber genre over recent years has fast become a significant one.

Dvořák and Brahms duly occupied the remainder of the recital. If the former’s Second Piano Quartet (1889) is not quite of the order of his Piano Quintet or F minor Piano Trio, it is a wholly characteristic work; at its best in the ruminative, effortlessly evolving Lento (at least as rendered on this occasion) and urbane scherzo. The outer movements can seem to be going through their formal motions, but the discipline and sensitivity evinced by the Fidelio ensured that they never outstayed their welcome.

Brahms was represented by his Third Piano Quartet (1875) – which in fact had taken shape as a C sharp minor work almost twenty years before, in the aftermath of Schumann’s death and during the throes of the composer’s ‘involvement’ with Clara Schumann. Oddly enough, it is the brief but incisive scherzo – only added towards the end of this protracted evolution – that feels most akin to the music of the composer’s youth, while the poised and understated Andante – seemingly the movement least affected by revision – is most prescient of the mature Brahms. The first movement has a tautness and severity suggesting emotions objectified by experience, with the equally purposeful but somehow distanced finale evoking such memories of which the composer could forgive himself but not forget.

An often-unsettling work, then, which was finely played by the Fidelio in conclusion to an excellent evening’s music-making. Whether its limitations as a medium are inherent, or merely perceived as such, the piano quartet has an assured future with so committed an ensemble to champion its cause.

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