Sunday, 19 January 2014

Elgar's Piano Quintet at King's Place

Dante Quartet - photo by Phillip Pratt
Dante Quartet, photo Philip Pratt
Elgar Piano Quintet, Turina, De Falla, Poulenc: Benjamin Frith, Dante Quartet at King's Place
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jan 17 2014
Star rating: 3.5

Interesting side-long glances - music by Turina, de Falla and Poulenc brings out the Spanish flavour in Elgar's Piano Quintet

Benjamin Frith
Benjamin Frith
King's Place's Chamber Classics Unwrapped festival has started and on Friday 18 January 2014 the Dante Quartet and pianist Benjamin Frith presented Elgar's Piano Quintet. One of the joys of the festival is the interesting decisions artists have made as to what to programme with the selected works. Here Frith and the Dante Quartet played up the Spanish connections in Elgar's work by performing music by Turina , Manuel de Falla and Poulenc.

The Dante Quartet, Krysia Osostowicz, Oscar Perks, Yuko Inoue and Richard Jenkinson, opened their programme with Joaquin Turina's La oracion del torero (The Bullfighter's Prayer) Op. 34, then followed Manuel de Falla's 7 Canciones populares espanoles in an arrangement for cello and piano, Suite populaire espagnole and finally Francis Poulenc's Violin Sonata written in memory of the Spanish writer Federico Garcia Lorca. The second half was dedicated to a single work, Elgar's Piano Quintet,  product of the composer's final creative flowering.

Turina's La oracion del torero was written in 1925 originally for the Aguilar lute quartet, though the composer then arranged it for string quartet and for string orchestra. Its subject matter combines the very Spanish themes of bull-fighting and religion. After a quiet prayerful opening full of evocative murmurings and wisps of melody, the work develops into a varied series of characterful episodes. Whilst Turina does bring in popular sounding rhythms and melodies, the overall effect is of a vividly contrasting patchwork which he develops into a striking climax before the evocative opening returns. After hearing such a characterful performance on string quartet, I did wonder what the piece sounds like in its original form for lute quartet?

Falla's 7 Canciones populares espanoles were written in 1914. The Polish violinist Paul Kochanski (1887 - 1934) worked with Falla to produces a version for violin and piano (leaving out the Seguidilla murciana) which was published in 1925. Cellist Richard Jenkinson was joined by pianist Benjamin Frith to perform a further layer of transcription, with a version for cello and piano by the French cellist Maurice Marechal (1892 - 1964). Jenkinson explained that they were performing the movements in Falla's original order rather than the changed ordering of the instrumental suite.

El pano moruno had the cello providing pizzicato and harmonics in the instrumental interludes, in addition to singing the main song melody, in a way which contributed considerably to the piece's appeal. Jenkinson sang the melody in a lovely characterful way, producing some vibrantly intense moments.

Asturiana had a very atmospheric introduction for piano alone, then the cello entered in a wonderfully evocative way with very hushed, veiled tone. In Jota Jenkinson's plucked cello joined with the piano from the opening, eventually alternating pizzicato and arco. He made the main tune big boned with a rich tone and was complemented by Frith's very fine piano playing. Nana started with a wonderfully delicate piano followed by a veiled, muted cello. Jenkinson brought flexibility and a nice Spanish inflection to the vocal line.

Cancion had a lively high singing cello over a busy piano, but the two held back and created something evocative before letting go and giving us a vibrant conclusion.  Polo combined the cello's vibrant high singing line with a vividly intense but hurried piano into a stunning combination of virtuosity.

The first half concluded with violinist Kyrsia Osostowicz and Benjamin Frith playing Poulenc's Violin Sonata. The work was written in 1942 and 1943 and was Poulenc's response to the execution of the poet Lorca in 1936 during the Spanish Civil War. The second movement has the subtitle Le guitarre fait pleurer les songes (the guitar makes dreams weep). The work also reflects Poulenc's own distress at the state of the world, living in occupied Paris during the war. The premiere was given by the violinist Ginette Neveu in 1943. She died in 1949 and Poulenc revised the final movement and dedicated it to her memory.

The opening  Allegro con fuoco is typically Poulenc, full of fragments assembled into a whole with snatches of the composer's lovely bitter sweet melodies. Osostowicz's performance was very vibrant and fearless with a sense of underlying seriousness. She and Frith caught the quicksilver nature of the movement well with tone varying from sweet singing to fearless intensity, but they didn't quite bring out the fiery nature of the writing. The middle movement, Intermezzo Tres lente e calme evokes the playing of the guitar with a haunting piano part complementing a dark melancholy violin. Osostowicz brought out the lovely bitter-sweet feel of the piece, with its curious yet evocative ending. The Presto tragico finale was something of a perpetuum mobile, with both violin and piano dazzling in their busyness. Here Osostowicz brought out the increasing anger of the piece, really digging into the string before the austere cadenza-like moment. She and Frith ended in slower bitter-sweet mode, but this time with a darker edge and a superb double false ending.

Elgar's Piano Quintet in A minor, Op. 84 dates from 1919 and joins the Cello Concerto and the Violin Sonata in his late compositional flowering The work was written at the cottage Brinkwells in Fittleworth, Sussex and the first movement's second theme is associated with a legend about Spanish monks struck dead whilst carrying out sacrilegious rites. The story was told during Elgar's lifetime, though there seems to be no local knowledge of the legend; there is an undoubted Spanish feel to the theme.

The mysterious opening of the first movement, Moderato - Allegro is very striking and has links to another curiously wonderful late Elgar work, the 1907 part-song Owls. Frith and the Dante Quartet made it mysterious indeed and we felt almost as if we had come into the middle of something. The mood continued even when the music became more lyrical. The second subject was given a lovely Spanish feel with some ethereally beautiful moments, though it does feel strange hearing hints of Spanish rhythms coming in Elgar's voice  There was a lovely sweep to the group's melody lines and they brought out the work's connections to other 20th century composers; this wasn't a highly English performance. And there were moments when I felt that I want the music to passionately throb more, whereas there was a very fine-grained elegance to the playing.

The Adagio started with a lovely singing melody on the viola which was then picked up by the ensemble, with the players giving a lovely long breathed feel and suffusing it with Elgarian melancholy. The middle section became more strenuous and intense with some seriously virtuoso moments, before the opening returned with a lovely transparency to the textures. The finale opened with a return to the mysterious material from the opening of the first movement, before the intensely dramatic material takes over. The quartet played the busily passionate material with a swing. The more lyrical episodes had a lovely mysterious quality including fragments of an evocative waltz with disturbing undertones.

The whole work was played with a fine grained elegance, a feeling of nice control and technical brilliant. Frith and the quartet formed an impressive unit, with the five players working sympathetically together and creating a real sense of chamber ensemble. But Elgar's music requires a little something extra to really make it work and I did not think that the group quite managed to bring out the underlying passion of the work. There were moments which I wanted to be more heart on sleeve and other which I felt needed to have a more passionate undertow.

The concert was a wonderful example of thoughtful programming. Instead of giving us chamber music by Elgar's English contemporaries as companion pieces, the group took a more tangential view. The resulting Spanish themed evening was full of interesting delights and sidelong glances.

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