String Quintet No.2 in G, Op.111
Piano Quintet in F minor, Op.34
Pavel Haas Quartet [Veronika Jarůšková & Marke Zwiebel (violins), Luosha Fang (viola), Peter Jarůšek (cello)]
Pavel Nikl (viola) & Boris Giltburg (piano)
Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers
Reviewed: 19 October, 2021
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London
Brahms composed an array of chamber music for various combinations of instruments, from one to six performers. Not a great deal of that is well known to general listeners, particularly either of the two String Quintets, though the Piano Quintet is one of the jewels of the repertoire. Both works programmed here are symphonic in form and scale, the former fairly teeming with musical ideas, though without quite settling down into anything especially memorable, which perhaps explains why it is not more highly regarded.
The Pavel Haas Quartet, with Pavel Nikl, gave it a somewhat gritty and impatient performance, despite its relatively light-hearted character, though certainly it does not embody the same breadth and glow of the other ‘autumnal’ works of the composer’s late period. It was euphoric, even giddy, when it needed to be, but when the pace let up, the ensemble probed the music more, as though in a dream. Although this interpretation captured well the extremes of mood, it managed to modulate between those contrasting sections without seeming schizophrenic, and stemmed consistently from an initial impulse of energy and urgency. After the tense first two movements, the third was more buoyant (though still with its strident moments judged effectively) and the Finale pressed on insistently to good purpose (even despite the composer’s marking ma non troppo presto).
Peter Jarůšek, on the cello, sat in the middle of the group, but with the flanking pairs of violins and violas facing towards each other rather than the audience, and so the balance tended to be muddled. There was not so much the sense of a dialogue among individual instrumental voices as the impression of the music being driven by the cello (even if it has the first prominent theme of the whole work). Timbres were better drawn in the Adagio, for instance with its principal theme enunciated wistfully at first by the viola, but delivered more tenderly by the violin later.
The performance of the Piano Quintet, with Boris Giltburg, similarly encompassed a range of contrasts without becoming incongruous as a result. They took a daringly relaxed approach to the quiet, searching introductory passage, but then unleashed a remorseless, indisputable – but not at all rushed – course through the first movement (taken with exposition repeat). Likewise, the Scherzo began mysteriously, but then gave way to percussive, driving rhythms from the performers, digging into the strings and playing col legno to underline its fierce character; and the finale opened in a mystically withdrawn manner like a late Beethoven quartet, though also doom-laden, before proceeding with an Allegro that tripped along with surprising innocence. But the latter was essentially just an episode before the violently emphatic conclusion, returning to the real emotional core of this interpretation.
Only the second movement seemed a touch plodding and dutiful, as though the strings were merely accompanying the piano rather than fully and lyrically engaged, however spontaneous but commanding Giltburg’s performance was. Again, balance had to do with that insofar as the string instruments tended to sound recessed with respect to the piano, even though they were in front of the latter, and by no means at all did Giltburg project too heavily or seek to dominate. Without that problem, the performances of both Quintets would have been that one degree more impressive.