Soloists of the International Mahler Orchestra

Phantasy Quartet, Op.2
Florian Kovacic
String Quartet No.1 [UK premiere]
Five Pieces for String Quartet
Sonata for Violin and Cello
Piano Quartet in A minor
String Quintet in C, Op.29

Soloists of the International Mahler Chamber Orchestra [Tristan Thery, Henriette Fauth & Célia Schann (violins), Piero Massa & Uta Scholl (violas), Géraldine Perret, Kajana Packo & Yoel Gamzou (cellos), James Redfern (piano) & Hernando Escobar (oboe)]

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 11 December, 2007
Venue: St John's, Smith Square, London

Edward Benjamin Britten, Baron Britten (1913-76)Seldom do six composers feature on one programme. This was a thoroughly stimulating evening that side-stepped the obvious and introduced a great deal of rarely-played music. Even Beethoven’s String Quintet is infrequently performed.

Britten’s Phantasy Quartet (for oboe and string trio), written when he was 19, is an astonishingly assured piece, emerging subtly from the shadows and carrying an emotional weight totally at odds with its brief time-span. Its changing landscape is the musical equivalent of one of those Constable cloud-studies where the East Anglian sky is in a constant state of evolution. It received an exceptionally sensitive performance from Venezuelan oboist Hernando Escobar – everything he plays is touched with magic and he is clearly one of the outstanding players of his generation and was quite beautifully complemented by the rich-toned violin of Tristan Thery, the International Mahler Orchestra’s Leader, and two other first-desk players.

Florian Kovacic is a Vienna-based composer and the son of violinist Ernst. String Quartet No.1 (1999) is intriguing and accessible. It falls into two broad sections, the first introducing three brief scenarios and doubling as exposition, the second merging and dramatising these thoughts. The work is breathed into life with a strange lurching motion, becoming occasionally exploratory, frequently teetering on the edge of silence and yet alternating with moments of great warmth and emotional directness. Like a good actor, Kovacic – who was present – has the ability to seize an audience’s attention and take it on a journey, partly through unpredictability. In the work’s second half, for example, one sensed a collage of Blues and tango and glimpses of an almost Janáček-like intensity interspersed with abrupt silences leading to an elliptical ending. The performance was generally excellent but could have possibly made even more of the work’s violent contrasts and implied extremes. This is music deserving exposure.

Erwin Schulhoff (1894-1942) The juxtaposition with Erwin Schulhoff’s Five Pieces for String Quartet (1923), a ‘dance suite’ in all but name, was illuminating. Whereas in the Kovacic the ‘dance’ is glimpsed darkly through a mirror, with Schulhoff it is quite explicit, each movement given over to a specific dance-form including a tango, a waltz and a tarantella. “I have a tremendous passion for the fashionable dances and there are times when I go dancing night after night with dance hostesses … purely out of rhythmic enthusiasm and subconscious sensuality”, wrote Schulhoff to Alban Berg. This is wonderfully entertaining music – at its best in the post-Mahlerian waltz and the hypnotic ‘Serenata’. The same players, now with violinists switched, gave a liltingly affectionate performance.

Sadly, Schulhoff died of TB in a Concentration Camp in 1942. However the evening’s standout performance came quite unexpectedly with Ravel’s Sonata for Violin and Cello, a four-movement work completed in 1922. Tristan Thery and Kajana Packo played this difficult music with refined sensibility and rare abandon. Dedicated to the memory of Debussy (who had died in 1918) the work evidently gave Ravel problems, not that one would have known from this superbly committed and stylish reading.

Opening the concert’s second half, Mahler’s brief Piano Quartet, composed during his years at the Vienna Conservatory, flowed naturally at a forward-moving tempo and was notable for James Redfern’s fluent account of the piano part as well as Henriette Fauth’s impassioned violin cadenza. Whilst giving full weight to Mahler’s youthful emotions, the group (including Yoel Gamzou, IMO’s conductor, on cello) were particularly successful in avoiding over-inflating the music and making it sound like Brahms.

Last but not least in this generous recital was Beethoven’s String Quintet, which like much early Beethoven is a discursive work. As with Mozart’s string quintets Beethoven’s is scored for two violas and contains a particularly inspired slow movement. Here and in the first movement the group really got to the heart of matters. Composed some fifteen years before Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville”, the finale anticipates that work’s buffo charm and sent us out with a chuckle.

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