Lars Vogt and Friends – 1

Trio in A minor for Clarinet, Cello and Piano, Op.114
Contrasts for Violin, Clarinet and Piano
Piano Quartet No.1 in G minor, Op.25

Lars Vogt (piano), Isabelle Faust (violin), Tatjana Masurenko (viola), Gustav Rivinius (cello) & Sharon Kam (clarinet)

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 14 April, 2007
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

The first of three concerts this weekend each featuring Brahms’s Piano Quartets. On the evidence of this first instalment of “Lars Vogt and Friends”, it’s clear that Vogt chooses his friends carefully, and also notable for giving us a double dose of Hungarian paprika in the form of Bartók’s Contrasts – which makes use of the pseudo-gypsy style – and Brahms’s first Piano Quartet with its gypsy finale.

In Brahms’s Trio, Vogt, Sharon Kam and Gustav Rivinius made a partnership of equals, each player ceding willingly to the next. In some hands this is music so mellow and laid back that it can be soporific. Not here. The adjectives that sprang to mind were ‘leisurely, subtle, confident and assertive’. The first movement was all the more effective for its restrained dynamics, the few climaxes registering with devastating effect, and its closing anticipation of the composer’s “Four Serious Songs” was remarkably poignant. The slow movement drew playing from Kam of unforced eloquence, the line beautifully sustained, whilst Vogt unfailingly produces the right sonorities for late Brahms, warm but with a sense of power held in reserve. By contrast, Kam is a more demonstrative player, using her whole body when she plays, but her art is wholly at the service of the composer.

Bartók’s Contrasts was written in 1939 for Benny Goodman and the Joseph Szigeti. As pianist Bartók recorded the work with them three months after the premiere. Originally entitled ‘Rhapsody’ and comprising just two movements, the work was extended with the slow middle movement (‘Relaxation’) and renamed ‘Three Dances’. By the time Bartók, Szigeti and Goodman gave the first performance in Boston in February 1941 the name had changed to Contrasts, perhaps reflecting the contrasts between the three instruments.

It places extreme demands on the three musicians and received here an astonishing, near-ideal performance. Sharon Kam’s soloistic tendencies were wholly in place – the first movement cadenza pushed the instrument to its very limits, producing playing of exceptional dynamic range and control – whilst Isabelle Faust’s slightly astringent violin was perfect for this music. There is real wit in Bartók’s ‘Bulgarian’ finale, which opens with a pastiche of Saint-Saëns’s Danse macabre and was given with an unstoppable momentum and communication.

Underpinned by Vogt’s unobtrusive but stylistic pianism, the first of Brahms’s Piano Quartets was on the same exalted level. This was playing of supreme musical intelligence and sophistication with the structure and character of each movement made crystal clear. Playing with extreme delicacy throughout, Vogt and his team caught the half-lit shadowy character of the Intermezzo, even sustaining this through its central section, and finding utmost repose at the close. The Andante had a grave Handelian dignity, which was entirely apt to the music and Faust cleverly husbanded her tone to leave something in reserve for the movement’s ecstatic climax. The Hungarian finale – taken for once at a true Presto – was an absolute tour de force, its minute hesitations and inflections caught on the wing.

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