Martinů Quartet with Olga Vinokur (piano) Kings Place 27 October 2013
Mozart: Piano Quintet in G Minor K 478
Martinů: String Quartet No. 2
Taneyev: Piano Quintet
Mozart, Martinů, Taneyev: a satisfyingly diverse and unusual programme this evening from the Martinů Quartet and pianist Olga Vinokur. Yet none of the three composers are particularly obscure, so the fact that two of them hardly ever appear on chamber music programmes in this country is an indictment of the conservatism of our venues and ensembles. But the works were chosen well, each characteristic of the respective composer’s style, and the Martinů and Taneyev were well performed, making an excellent case for the live presentation of such unduly neglected works.
Neglected in the West that is. The Czech ensemble and Russian/American pianist come from performance cultures where Taneyev and Martinů are far from obscure, and their innate sensitivity to the musical styles of these two composers went a long way towards the success of the performances. The Mozart, however, was a different story. Nowhere in the standard repertoire is the stylistic division between East and West more apparent than in this composer’s work. Performers from Eastern Europe have no qualms about applying a Romantic mode of expression, with continuous legato blurring the lines, and dynamics that regularly go to extremes. The period performance movement has made little impression here, which is probably just as well, as the ideas it presents run in direct opposition to many of the underlying principles of this sort of interpretation. On its own terms, it was a technically proficient performance, and emotive too, but it really wasn’t to my taste, for which I’ll happily take the blame.
No such problems with the Martinů Second String Quartet though. Given that the ensemble is named after the composer, it is little surprise that their performance of his work is idiomatic in the extreme. It’s a great piece, infused with all sorts of folk material and, in the second movement, with the sounds of rustic, presumably Bohemian, hymnody. But all these elements are combined into a tightly-argued work governed by a keen sense of structural rigour. The music is not as acerbic as later Bartók, although it is clearly of a similar persuasion. The players have a tone that suits this music well, rich but with a slightly unfocussed quality: shades of the folk fiddle, which was clearly also at the back of Martinů’s mind, especially in the lively violin duet that opens the work. Throughout the piece, the ensemble is repeatedly reduced to bring out solos in the middle and lower texture, and each of the players shone when Martinů trained his spotlight on them.
The Taneyev Piano Quintet is another work that deserves far more attention than it gets in the West, and the performance this evening, while not perfect, showcased its many qualities. It is a large piece, in four substantial movements, each with a strong melodic identity and well-argued, if sometimes conventional, structure. Again, the Eastern European qualities of the players’ approach really benefitted the work. Pianist Olga Vinokur is clearly of the Russian school, giving definite attack to every note, and bringing out every line of Taneyev’s often complex counterpoint. But she’s not as heavy-handed as some of her compatriots, and when she reduces the dynamic for the more lyrical developmental sections, she always integrates well into the ensemble. There were one or two passages that didn’t quite come off: the pp high violins at the opening lacked the security of intonation this passage needs, the ebullient second movement scherzo was not as nimble as it might have been, and the very low tessitura of the final coda section challenged the ensemble’s intonation and balance. But on the whole this was a fine performance that did this unjustly neglected masterpiece proud. And if we were in any doubt about the significance and influence of Taneyev on the later course of Russian music, for an encore we heard the Intermezzo of Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet, clearly modelled on the Passacaglia movement of Taneyev’s. The Shostakovich was given a magnificent performance, sensitive, delicate and finely controlled. An ideal close to a fascinating and adventurous concert.