Russian Chamber Music 1: Steven Isserlis & Friends

Trio Pathétique in D minor
String Quartet No.2 in D
Piano Quintet No.2 in G minor, Op.30

Martin Fröst (clarinet), Steven Isserlis (cello) & Kirill Gerstein (piano) [Glinka]

Jerusalem String Quartet [Alexander Pavlovsky & Sergei Bresler (violins), Amihai Grosz (viola) & Kyril Zlotnikov (cello)]

Baiba Skride & Sergei Bresler (violins), Amihai Grosz (viola), Steven Isserlis (cello) & Kirill Gerstein (piano) [Taneyev]

Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood

Reviewed: 8 April, 2008
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Steven Isserlis. Photograph: Tom MillerThis concert marked the beginning of four Wigmore Hall concerts devised by Steven Isserlis and featuring himself and some of his friends, Russian chamber music being the focus. While the repertoire chosen remains similar to that from the Taneyev Festival series he curated at the same venue in 2002, the objective remains the same – to raise awareness that orchestral music, while dominant in 19th-century Russia, was not a composer’s sole form of expression.

The first concert served to highlight the pivotal role, once again, of Mikhail Glinka. His Trio Pathétique dates a mere five years after the death of Beethoven, and though originally written for clarinet, bassoon and piano, was transcribed with little effort here. The performance started somewhat unevenly, but the balance and ensemble soon redressed itself so that Martin Fröst’s legato line could be easily admired.

The attractive piece has much melodic interest and a curious structure, of one continuous movement split into four ‘classical’ divisions. This made sense with Isserlis’s warm-hearted playing complementing Fröst in the slower section, while the three musicians sparkled in the scherzo. The finale seems strangely curtailed, but still notable for broadly phrased solos from both clarinet and cello, and Kirill Gerstein was sensitive to both in his accompaniment.

Borodin’s Second String Quartet is perhaps the best-loved of all 19th-century Russian chamber music, yet it remains relatively scarce in the concert hall. The Jerusalem Quartet brought it alive in a performance of freshness and guile, the opening cello theme sweetly lyrical from Kyril Zlotnikov, while the playful last movement drew direct comparisons with Beethoven. The lovely slow movement was warm-hearted and given just the right amount of sentimentality and with its faster section of greater urgency.

Martin FröstThe Jerusalem Quartet’s lyrical warmth was perhaps the strongest feature of this performance, the players’ ensemble achieved through clearly visible communication, was well-nigh-faultless in the unisons of the last movement, whether hushed or forceful.

Music of even greater force lay ahead in the form of Taneyev’s Piano Quintet in G minor. Regarded as the composer’s greatest achievement in chamber music, this is a work of extraordinary concentration, and in this taut performance the tension did not let up, either throughout the 20-minute first movement, or the forty-four Variations unravelled in the slow movement Passacaglia. Here Isserlis was the lynchpin, providing the ten-note ground-bass almost throughout but with an ideal shape, so that after its initial descent it fell away at the end. Above the fixed constant Sergei Bresler and Amihai Grosz wound their thoughtful counterpoint, though Baiba Skride could have been a touch more commanding in leading the melodic line.

Gerstein took full control of the big first movement, with its expansive octaves, and the climax points were often wrought with anguish, the ensemble between the five musicians particularly impressive. Taneyev’s surprisingly percussive use of the piano was well-treated here, with no harm done to the overall balance with the pianist a little removed at the back of the platform. The virtuosity of these soloists was most apparent in a hell-for-leather scherzo of impeccable technique and feather-light dexterity, with a trio of regal charm to complement. And, after the slow movement, when the passionate arguments of the finale were finally resolved, the work came full-circle, with Taneyev’s use of cyclical themes emphatically argued in this performance. That the momentum of this work never flagged is as much a tribute to the concentration of the five performers as it is to Taneyev’s inventive compositional process, taking elements of Brahms and anticipations of Rachmaninov. The players fully relished their journey through strange keys and rich harmonies, and with Gerstein’s affirmative peal of bells in the final bars a fully uplifting conclusion was reached.

  • Further concerts on April 10, 12 & 14 at 7.30 p.m.

  • Wigmore Hall

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