Piano quartets from Diedre Irons and NZSO string principals

Wellington Chamber Music
Vesa-Matti Leppänen (violin), Julia Joyce (viola), Andrew Joyce (cello), Diedre Irons (piano)

Schubert: Adagio and Rondo Concertante in F, D 487
Fauré: Piano Quartet in C minor, Op 15
Brahms: Piano Quartet in A, Op 26

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Sunday 7 August 3 pm

There was little doubt that a piano quartet comprising three of the principals in the NZSO plus one of the most admired New Zealand pianists would produce a delightful concert. And the composers to be played were further assurance of a couple of rewarding hours.

That expectation could withstand the unknown quantity of the first piece, by Schubert. Written aged 19 and therefore, in Schubert’s case, the work of a thoroughly experienced, even mature, composer. After all, he’d already written more lovely music than most composers do in a long life: seven operas, four symphonies, eleven string quartets, scores of songs and piano pieces.

This was practically the only music he wrote for piano quartet. Diedre Irons’s programme note remarked on the prominence given to the piano, and I thought she was to be admired for making little effort to disguise that feature. There were occasional moments when, for example, the cello sounded as if it might be offered something worthwhile to do, but often that was just a passing distraction; and one of the violin’s appearances soon led to a defeated sounding, descending arpeggio.

That was the introductory Adagio part. The Rondo proved a bit more interesting, though it still sounded rather like a piano sonata with obbligato strings. However, there was more liveliness here and better evidence of Schubert’s singular musical gifts. For all the comparative reticence by the three stringed instruments, the players explored all the latent possibilities of colour and dynamics and varied pacing that are to be found in Schubert.

The first of Fauré’s two piano quartets, probably his most popular piece of chamber music, brought us to well-known territory. And there was never a moment’s doubt about either its musical worth or its illuminating playing by these four musicians. By the time Fauré was about 30, when this was written, he was displaying great maturity in handling ensemble music and in creating interesting, well balanced music that evolved in an imaginative way. In this work he seems to be seeking as full and varied a sound as possible, even striving towards the spirit of an orchestral work, perhaps the piano concerto he never wrote.

Often in music these days, what I look forward to is the slow movement (when I was young it was usually the fast, exciting parts). So in this quartet, I particularly enjoyed the Adagio with the slow, thoughtful theme that was introduced by the piano and cello, though soon it encompassed all the strings which were particularly beautiful. And the cello’s return later in an extended passage was especially captivating. The strongly contrasted finale – Allegro molto – created a feeling of inevitability with some moments in which the piano became quite insistent; but the work’s overall feeling is of a generous and perfectly reasonable sharing of all the musical material among the four players.

Brahms was five or six years younger than Fauré when he wrote his two piano quartets. It’s the other one, Op 25, that’s rather better known, and more popular; so this outing was most welcome.

It might seem odd that Op 25 is in a minor key (G minor) while this, which a generally fairly peaceful and meditative, is in the most sanguine of keys, A major. The experts hear a good deal of Schubert in this piece, in the handling of the piano by itself in, to mark out a big extended tune as the strings murmur along. It’s been observed that with these chamber works Brahms was responding to the discovering, unearthing, in the 1850s (much by Schumann), of a great deal of Schubert’s music which had simply been filed away, unplayed and unpublished.

As I listened, I had begun to make notes to the effect that in this quartet, Brahms was stretching the limits of convention by injecting greater variety in each movement with unexpected mood changes and a disinclination to adhere literally to the character of each movement as announced by its title.

This became so erratic and puzzling that when I got home I looked up the movements of Op 26 and discovered that those printed in the programme related to Op 25, and of course, my notes conformed much better to the real names of the movements, as they should have been shown: 1. Allegro non troppo, 2. Poco adagio, 3 Scherzo – Poco allegro, and Trio, 4 Allegro. The main discrepancy was the reversing of the fast and slow, second and third movements. (Op 25’s second movement is marked as in the programme, Allegro ma non troppo and a Trio: Animato). Then it fell into place.

In any case, the players seemed to rejoice in the idiosyncrasies in Brahms’s composition, and there was a real feeling of pleasure and engagement. In the Finale the piano led the way at once with the strings contributing cohesive support for it, though individual strings took their turn in the limelight. And here I had remarked that, if Brahms had intended to inject a gypsy element in it (‘alla zingarese’, in the G minor quartet), he seemed to have encountered a fairly sedate gypsy band that day. However, there was a touch of the zingarese here, though nothing to remark on.

Happily, of course, the mistake probably bothered only the one who was trying to keep track of what was going on, in order to be able to write something that was vaguely sensible.

It was a most satisfying concert, a mixture of the known and the not well known and the unknown; but all rewarding and performed with the greatest musicality, zest and imagination.





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