Piers Lane and the Doric String Quartet in rapturous accord

Haydn: Quartet in D, Op 64 No 5 ‘The Lark’; Bartók: String Quartet No 3; Chopin: Nocturne in E flat, Op 55 No 2; Ballade No 3 in A flat, Op 47; Brahms: Piano Quintet in F minor, Op 34

Wellington Town Hall

Friday 10 September, 7.30pm

To the simple music-lover, this looked like the most attractive of the year’s chamber music concerts from Chamber Music New Zealand. Though the audience was quite large, I’d expected to see a bigger house than this. My guess was about 750 customers.

Perhaps the Doric Quartet is not as well known as I thought; it’s getting harder and harder for the casual music lover to distinguish the excellent from the superb from the amazing as more and more groups pour out of music academies all over the world.

It certainly is a pity that human beings are so attached to reputations that are very substantially manufactured by publicity hype or luck, and are ready to allow their ears to be misled accordingly.

But on top of the superb quartet there was Piers Lane, one of the most engaging and musical of international pianists, though not a star in the class of Kissin and Grimaud, Aimard and Uchida, let alone the dozens of brilliant and good-looking youngsters that flash across the night sky, many not to reappear. .

Lane was certainly the biggest draw-card at the 2009 Adam Chamber Music Festival in Nelson, and here he offered us a reminder of how to play Chopin in a whole-hearted way, with all the virtuosity needed yet with immaculate taste and refinement.

He opened the second half alone, with two pieces of Chopin – the concert’s only nod to the two bicentenarians (they played Schumann’s piano quintet in the other series). His Nocturne was broad, confident, in a quintessentially romantic vein; the third Ballade was inspired by similar approach, its several phases colourfully distinguished, giving particular attention to accents within phrases; it was a performance that was of the very essence of the period in which in was written.

Well-known as these pieces are, through recordings or our own struggles at the piano, live piano performances have become rare , not just of Chopin, but rare as a genre: even from the great pianists brought here by the NZSO or the APO.

The concert had begun with Haydn’s ‘Lark’ quartet, one of the most spirited and engaging. Though the first two movements demonstrated the quartet’s extraordinary awareness of the subtleties and the secrets that Haydn planted in each separate part, there were discoveries and revelations, and the surpise of speed in the last two movements. Quartets of this period were show-pieces for the first violin and without undue display, Alex Redington allowed his easy mastery, clear and penetrating, to perform that role, though at the start he created the sweetest, smallest sound. The quartet relished an exquisite languor in the second movement, beautifully decorated little violin cadenzas and long pauses as it changed direction. The last two movements were uncommonly but convincingly fast, creating will-o’-the-wisp effects that light up and then died away. The speed of both movements seemed to raise them into a transcendental state which never settled for a moment.

Bartók’s 3rd quartet is relatively short, but it is one of the more acerbic of the six, as he made his mark among the avant-garde of the time – the late 1920s; jagged rhythms and pithy motifs that suggest Magyar modes and melodic shapes, but avoiding any hint of the late romantic. Though in four sections, there are no breaks and the labels attached to each of the ‘nominal’ movements hardly matter, as Bartók allows each in turn to add bits of a whole to form a remarkably integrated composition. The players’ spiritual sympathy with the music was remarkable, as was their commitment to its time and place, all of which drew lyricism and musical vitality from what can be merely difficult music in lesser hands.

The audience responded to the grand opening of Brahms Piano Quintet with an almost audible sigh of luxury, and even more as the mood dropped to something that took us secretively into its confidence. The unease of one moment was turned magically to gaiety, but nothing lasted long. The quartet, and pianist, were throughout in the most perfect rapport, neither party dominating or out of character with the whole. The third movement, Scherzo and Trio, was splendid, ending almost too thunderously.

The labeling of Brahms as a classicist by scholars has always struck me as the view of those who study the score and its formal niceties, but who don’t bother to listen. Nothing could be more whole-heartedly romantic, expressive, occasionally quixotic in character, than this work and especially the opening of the Finale; reticent, almost wracked with self-doubt. And yet it evolves into the most magnificent, heroic pageant which is gloriously prolonged and entirely envelopes the members of the quintet. An utterly memorable performance.


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