Monday, 11 November 2019

Gems and discoveries: Piano Quartets from the Rossetti Ensemble at Conway Hall

The Rossetti Ensemble (Photo Robert Piwko)
The Rossetti Ensemble (Photo Robert Piwko)
Mozart, Debussy, Bridge, Mahler, Schumann; Rossetti Ensemble; Conway Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 10 November 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Gems from the piano quartet repertoire in warmly passionate performances

Last night, 10 November 2019, the Rossetti Ensemble (Sara Trickey violin, Sarah-Jane Bradley viola, Tim Lowe cello, John Lenehan piano) gave a programme of piano quartets at the Conway Hall, as part of Conway Hall Sunday Concerts, and beforehand I gave a pre-concert talk, The Cinderella Effect: a History of the Piano Quartet looking at the development of the piano quartet from Mozart and Beethoven, through Dussek and Marschner, to Schumann, Brahms, Dvorak and Fauré.

The Rossett Ensemble played Mozart's Piano Quartet no. 2 in E flat, John Lenehan's arrangement of the prelude to Debussy's La demoiselle elue, Frank Bridge's Phantasy for Piano Quartet in F sharp minor, Gustav Mahler's Piano Quartet in A minor and Robert Schumann's Piano Quartet in E flat.

We began with the Mozart in a performance that was poised, strong and full-blooded. The slow movement was interestingly complex and the substantial final movement was full of delightful moments, but also its elaboration made you realise why Mozart's publisher had rejected his first piano quartet as being too complex for amateurs!



The Debussy was wonderfully atmospheric and evocative, and was followed by Bridge's 1910 Phantasy for Piano Quartet, a single movement, multi-section work. The opening proved full-blooded and dramatic and the whole piece seemed remarkably dynamic with some wonderfully complex textures. Benjamin Britten, Bridge's pupil, would describe the quartet as 'Brahms happily tempered with Fauré', and you could see what he meant. Throughout the various sections, by turns scherzo-ish and romantic, there was always a lovely sense of contrapuntal interest with lovely textures. Definitely a work to hear again.

The second half started with Gustav Mahler's only surviving piece of chamber music, his Piano Quartet. Written when he was 15 and at Vienna Conservatory, it was performed a few times in 1876 and never again, the manuscript only coming to light in the 1960s. It is a single movement of a planned full quartet, but it is not clear if it was ever finished. The work is a remarkably brooding piece for a 15-year-old, teeming with strong, dark emotion, very much in a post-Brahms, late-Romantic style.

We finished with Robert Schumann's Piano Quartet, a pair to his Piano Quintet but a work which always seems somewhat in the quintet's shadow. We had a thoughtful slow introduction leading to a characterful and flowingly romantic first movement, with Schumann bringing the slow introduction back at key points in the movement to striking effect. The players took the scherzo at quite a lick, so the fairies were very vivid here, with lyrical interludes. The slow movement was introduced by the lovely big tune sung by the cello, and this tune featured throughout the movement, concluding back on the cello. The finale was fast and furious, full of contrapuntal interest and wonderfully passionate.

Whilst the programme was bookended by two major works from the piano quartet repertoire, even these proved less familiar than they deserve to be and it was a joy to discover new delights like the Bridge, especially in such warmly passionate performances. We were treated to an encore, John Lenehan's arrangement of an Astor Piazzolla tango.

The video, below, features a complete performance of Bridge's Phantasy Quartet which the Rossetti Quartet gave earlier this year.



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