Intriguing and largely successful Villani Piano Quartet recital at Lower Hutt

Villani Piano Quartet: Flavio Villani (piano), Marko Pop Ristov (violin), Helen Bevin (viola), Sarah Spence (cello)
(Chamber Music Hutt Valley)

Mahler: Piano quartet in A minor
Schnittke: Piano Quartet, after Mahler
Brahms: Piano Quartet in G minor, Op 25

Little Theatre, Lower Hutt

Monday 12 September, 7:30 pm

Last Saturday’s subscription concert by Orchestra Wellington explored connections between Mahler, his wife, Alma, the unfinished tenth symphony, Alma’s lover of the time, the famous architect Walter Gropius, their daughter, Manon, born after Mahler’s death, and Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto written in memory of her death aged 18 (a bit sad that Berg’s compulsion to memorialise Manon’s death probably stopped him from completing Lulu). A further connection was that between Wilma Smith, Saturday’s violin soloist, and one of her teachers at the New England Conservatory in Boston, Louis Krasner, who gave the premiere of the Violin Concerto in 1935. Not many concerts can boast that range of spectacular associations.

Mahler in chamber music
This chamber music concert dwelt on more purely musical connections between Mahler and a later composer, without, to my knowledge, any especially erotic elements to the story. The later composer was Schnittke who was born 23 years after Mahler died, and who died in 1998. (Though he did overlap Alma Mahler’s life; she died in 1964).

As a student Mahler had begun to write a piano quartet of which only the first movement was found in 1960 in a box (I’m not sure whether there is any suggestion that he had actually completed it); however, a short sketch of a Scherzo was found in the same box.

Schnittke was attracted to it and rather than dealing with it as various musicologists had with the sketches of Mahler’s tenth symphony, he used it as an inspiration, or perhaps basis, for a piece that had far more similarities to his own music than to Mahler’s own.

Mahler’s first movement was very much the child of its time – the last quarter of the 19th century. After a somewhat tentative sounding opening, a distinctive, descending and somewhat chromatic melody arrives and lends the music a memorable character. The violin part is prominent, though all four instruments have interesting and engaging contributions. Balance was occasionally questionable, with the piano prominent in the somewhat excitable, climactic central part of the movement. The three stringed instruments enjoyed a sort of cadenza towards the end.

To Schnittke
Schnittke has become a name to conjure with in the post-Soviet era, alleged to be a sort of successor to Shostakovich though that must be meant merely as an artist whose musical impulses did not endear him to the Soviet authorities, and in fact put him at risk. With increasing ill-health, he left the USSR in 1990 to live in Hamburg, dying there in 1998. I think almost all the music that I’ve heard of Schnittke has been chamber music which I have not warmed to. However, I have also explored some of his large output of symphonic and other music and have been surprised to have been engrossed by it in a way that the chamber music has not. I wonder why our orchestras have not explored the symphonies, concerto grossos, concertos, choral works and music else. While he briefly experimented with serialism and was unfortunate to have the label ‘polystylism’ applied to his music generally, most of what I’ve heard in live performance has been remote from and much less interesting than the recorded music I’ve heard. That certainly applied to this piece, which struck me as an eccentric and unfortunate example of Schnittke the real composer.

The cello has something resembling Mahler’s melody with the other instruments circling round it, with the piano soon seeming to assert its right to be heard. The players attempted to elucidate the music before playing, choosing to excite interest by having pianist Villani show us what ‘clusters’ were like. I couldn’t decide whether Schnittke was being flippant and mocking Mahler, demonstrating his own gift for unravelling the mystery of an unfinished work through a series of unfulfilled references to scraps of the Mahler, handled by means of quasi-psychological processes and strict, sophisticated musical devices. For what it was worth, the players delivered a serious and competent performance of a piece that lies only on the fringe of the composer’s real musical achievements. I would urge those who have not explored Schnittke, to listen to the ever-expanding resources on You Tube on the Internet to be moved and enraptured by the real Schnittke.

Brahms Opus 25
The music I was really there to hear was Brahms’ Op 25 piano quartet. I confess to being a fully paid-up Brahms lover, and can’t even admit to understanding Schoenberg’s decision to orchestrate it because, he said, its density led to poor performances. Nevertheless, the Schoenberg version is an interesting achievement if a bit of a curiosity (though I seriously miss the piano part it in it), essentially about as satisfying as his arrangements in the other direction, of Strauss waltzes for chamber ensemble.

The opening phase is certainly an emphatic episode where the violin tune was here accompanied by a somewhat heavy piano, but which is soon followed by the lovely, full-blooded, undulating melody which really remains the heart of the movement. The second movement, labelled Intermezzo, is a sort of Scherzo and Trio, the first section in triple time, though without a pronounced danceable rhythm; the chief impulse in the early pages is its quaver triplets, while the Trio is quicker, in a triple time that often seems ambiguous. The performers are well on the way to gaining full confidence in Brahms’s devious turn of mind, as displayed in this movement.

The beautifully lyrical slow movement went well and the players created a small thrill with the arrival of the alla marcia rhythm borrowed from the second movement. The following subsidence to the calm opening part of the movement, is prolonged and there was some loss of intensity which I suspect is hard to avoid.

The finale, a Rondo in gypsy style, embeds the popularity of this quartet, and the combination of gypsy schmaltz and vigorous thrusting dance rhythms was effectively achieved. But chamber music is a genre that calls for prolonged years of playing together, to gain mastery of the qualities that allow an ensemble to recreate the greatest masterpieces in the classical repertoire; so it is always rewarding to hear a group that has achieved a high degree of skill and insight, though not yet at the level of the best international ensembles.

Though I had misgivings about the Schnittke, both the Mahler and the Brahms were works that deserved and got splendid, energetic and satisfying performances.

I should record that, on 28 August, the Villani Quartet gave a recital at St Andrew’s on The Terrace in Wellington, which was to have been reviewed here (not by me). It was a particularly interesting programme:
Frank Bridge: Phantasy Piano Quartet
Peteris Vasks: Piano Quartet
Schumann: Piano Quartet in E flat, Op 47
Alfred Hill: “The Sacred Mountain” (1932)
(the last two were changes from the originally advertised programme)