Lars Vogt and Friends – 3

Piano Quartet No.3 in C minor, Op.60
Quatuor pour le fin du temps

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

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 15 April, 2007
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

The final instalment of Lars Vogt’s ‘Brahms-Fest’ was something of a mixed bag. In comparison with his two earlier piano quartets, Brahms’s last work for the medium receives all too few performances. Its comparative neglect is understandable, given its often elusive and introspective nature, but completely unmerited for it is a ‘Cinderella’ waiting to be discovered. By contrast, although Messiaen’s ‘Quartet for the end of time’ has established itself as something of a modern classic, in less than sympathetic hands it can easily outstay its welcome.

Brahms’s final piano quartet gave him considerable trouble. He started work on it in the mid-1850s but then completely recomposed the work in 1873-4, altering the tonality from C sharp minor to C minor, evidently recomposing the original finale to become the scherzo, substituting a new finale and quite possibly also creating a new slow movement. The end result was well worth all the effort.

To make its full impact this dark music requires especially sympathetic handling of sonority and dynamics. Despite its occasional massive climaxes, much of the opening movement is surprisingly inward and subdued. Vogt and his colleagues – especially violist Tatjana Masurenko – instinctively found the right tone, pacing and voicing with complete understanding. The scherzo, taken not too fast, had a finely sustained momentum with perfectly placed cross-accents, whilst the Andante – essentially a ‘Wiegenlied’ for adults – was wonderfully concentrated. The finale’s irascible ‘moto perpetuo’ terminates in an abrupt slide into silence that is particularly difficult to bring off, but here was perfectly judged.

Would that Messiaen’s work had been on the same level. There were undoubtedly some outstanding things, notably Sharon Kam’s beautiful account of ‘Abyss of the birds’, an extended movement for unaccompanied clarinet featuring transcriptions of birdsong which drew playing of extraordinary otherworldly finesse, sounds often emerging from the outer fringes of audibility. Elsewhere, all-too-frequently, it seemed that a sledgehammer was being employed to crack a nut – the ‘Dance of fury’ ground on unendingly, whilst the expansive ‘Praise to the eternity of Jesus’, an arching meditation for cello accompanied by softly pulsating piano chords, drew the kind of expressiveness more appropriate to … well … Brahms.

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