Schubert – Maria João Pires & Friends (1)

Quartettsatz in C minor, D703
Nachtstuck, D672
Der Zwerg, D771
Impromptus, D935: No.1 in F minor; No.2 in A flat
Litanei aus das Fest aller Seelen, D343
Der Jungling und der Tod, D545
Der Tod und das Mädchen, D531 [arr. for voice and string quartet]
String Quartet in D minor, D810 (Death and the Maiden)

Maria João Pires (piano) with Rufus Müller (tenor) and Brodsky Quartet [Priya Mitchell & Ian Belton (violins), Paul Cassidy (viola) & Jacqueline Thomas (cello)]

Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter

Reviewed: 3 May, 2007
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

This was the first of three concerts in which the eminent Portugese pianist, Maria João Pires, brought together friends so they might recollect Franz Schubert with compassionate and rapt tranquillity.

There was a sense of occasion. Maria João Pires asked us not to applaud until each of the two sequences of varied pieces had concluded. We were there to listen, as the musicians were there to play, for a friend who happened to have died almost two hundred years ago.

The humility was paramount – the abiding sense of performing in service to the music and the composer. This was the humility, or modesty, of performers who were too considerable to be concerned with the egocentric business of making their grubby little mark on the sounds. They each contributed to this unique event – true musicians, somewhat unsung maybe, but masterly. This os, after all, one of the world’s great pianists, an outstanding quartet (more in the mould of the Griller than the Amadeus or The Lindsays) and a Lieder singer to die for.

Time and again, I had a sense of Schubert’s immediacy and sublimity. The hand of life was upon the music and its performance, but the music-making seemed from another world.

The Quartettsatz was as fervent, vigorous and spiky as it should be. The lyricism of the second subject was a surging alternative not a sentimental respite. Priya Mitchell reminded me of Galina Solodchin, the magnificently impassioned Russian-born leader of the Delme Quartet. There was no let-up in this silvered turmoil of a quartet fragment.

Then tranquillity came. Rufus Müller is a singer in the great German tradition. More – he embodies it. I was rapt in my listening to the sublime sounds he was making; at the same time that I was keenly and delightedly conscious of the training and artistry that had gone into the making of this wonder – the long, melodic line, the breath control, the light and shade and the glancing underscoring of telling words. (I recalled Ernst Haefliger.) This was chamber-style singing; it was as though Müller were singing just for me. Pires accompanied in perfect rapport.

As was only fit, her performance of the two familiar Impromptus was a far more public affair – and suitably robust. The performances were no-nonsense and on the swift side – no dallying here, no sighing, not even between the lines.

The arrangement of “Der Tod und das Mädchen” for voice and string quartet didn’t quite work. The arrangers had not dared depart from the piano-accompanied original as strikingly as I surmise Schubert himself might have done.

‘Death and the Maiden’ was an amazing performance, in an unforgettable interpretation. The driving agony of the first movement was lightweight – to its advantage. The Brodsky players made its classical form a searing adjunct to the restless distress. Schubert’s woundedness stabbed rather than bludgeoned.

The musicians’ decision paid off as soon as the ‘Death and the Maiden’ theme began the second movement. The intensity of its sadness burned into the soul. I was conscious of being in the presence of one of the world’s great string quartets – cool; impassioned; vibrantly sublime. Then came the surprise: the impact of Schubert’s writing went from strength to strength. The scherzo was alarming – trolls clumped nimbly in the mountain, menacing but off duty. Then the climax burst upon us – a stern, spiky, frantic and determined finale, an inescapable dance of death. I recalled the dark vitality of the close to Ingmar Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal”. I’ve never heard Schubert’s quartet played like this – or so well.

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