String Quartet No.3
Piano Quintet in F minor, Op.34
Signum Quartet [Kerstin Dill & Annette Walther (violins), Xandi van Dijk (viola) & Thomas Schmitz (cello)]
Christian Ihle Hadland (piano)
Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers
Reviewed: 26 August, 2013
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London
Although the two works here are rather different in style, they both inhabit a world of passionate, intense emotion. Whereas Elizabeth Maconchy’s String Quartet No.3 (1938) is concise and terse, with its doleful rumination over a couple of motifs, Shostakovich-like rather than suggesting her usual influences, Bartók and Janáček, Brahms’s Piano Quintet is a richly Romantic piece, worked out on a symphonic scale. But Maconchy’s description of her string quartets as “impassioned argument” could equally well apply to the spirit of just about every work Brahms composed, not least the Piano Quintet.
String Quartet No.3 by Maconchy (1907-94) unfolds continuously through five sections, lasting a little over ten minutes overall. It begins with the slow undulation of a motif built upon the interval of a second. The two violinists brought a mellow sonority to this passage whenever it appeared by playing high up on the G-string in emulation of a viola’s tone. This section is succeeded by a more dynamic one in which the seconds were inverted to form a sequence of lunging sevenths. After the Signum Quartet’s relaxed presentation of the opening, its members preferred not to venture into too violent a manner for the faster sections. This meant that there was a consistency of emotional purpose throughout the performance, bringing the forlorn serenade-like central section within its ambit completely naturally.
Unfortunately a satisfying emotional unity was much less evident in Brahms’s Piano Quintet, though this was certainly not attributable to Christian Ihle Hadland’s joining the Signum ensemble. By no means did he dominate the music, for he knew when to melt into the work’s more involved textures. He gave a strong lead in enunciating the opening melody with mystery and tentativeness before unleashing fury and drama. There was promise then for a careful delineation of the score’s contrasts of light and shade, but this failed to emerge naturally. The performers rose to excitement and drive for the climactic moments but then eased off in the sections in between, dropping down one gear too many; for instance, after the opening arpeggios of the scherzo, the scurrying motif in the strings was not invested with much sense of direction. The strings’ chords accompanying the lulling theme of the slow movement were somewhat curt and indifferent, and the development of the first movement was introspective but inconsequential.
Undoubtedly the execution was accomplished and intelligent, exhibiting insight and polish. But the juxtaposition of contrasting passages seemed contrived and unrelated to each other, rather than forged into an organic flow. Brahms, more than most composers, needs an appropriate degree of tension to be maintained through the impeccable logic of his structures while modulating the mood and register to suit the character of the music. The climax of the finale was powerful and passionate, as it should be, and there was joyous abandon in the major-key theme of the scherzo. But with an emotionally cool slow movement and the hesitant character of the finale’s opening section, the impact of the coda was not the devastating culmination it could have been.