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S & H Concert Review

JANÁCEK SERIES Andras Schiff, Panocha Quartet, Wigmore Hall, Friday March 28th, 2003 (CC)


Some concerts are just special, and this was one of them. Andras Schiff seems to feel completely at home in Janácek’s very individual sound-world (witness also his recording of piano music on ECM), and it was a pleasure and revelation to hear two of Janácek’s major works for piano surrounded and contextualised by other chamber music.

The Concertino of 1925 for piano, clarinet, bassoon, horn, two violins and viola is a fascinating work in every respect. The horn statement in the opening bars emphasised the Eastern European flavour of proceedings: Radovan Vlatovi has a round, full tone (almost ‘plump’), which is characteristic of horn playing in that part of the world. It was Schiff's playing which remained the focus of the performance, however, as he captured the spirit of Janácek’s elusive lyricism, forever refusing to be over-langorous. The finale presented Janácek’s high spirits by a projecting a perhaps surprising Haydnesque wit.

The Piano Sonata in E flat minor (From the Street I. X. 1905) was therefore set in high contrast. The piece was inspired by events in Brno (the Moravian capital) which resulted in the death of a young workman after clashes because of protests against the setting up of a Czech University in that city. The first movement, Pedtucha (‘Presentiment’) is full of foreboding. Schiff gave a powerful account, the opening appropriately ominous, the nervous figures characterised, the bare octaves full of shifting emotions. For the second movement, Smrt (‘Death’) Schiff built up a monumental climax that was quite shattering in its intensity.

As far as emotional quotient was concerned, the first part of the concert could have finished there: however, Janácek’s String Quartet No. 1 was still to come. This is a remarkable piece, inspired by Tolstoy’s novella The Kreutzer Sonata. The Czech Panocha String Quartet is no stranger to the record catalogues, and they displayed confidence in abundance. Interestingly, they held back slightly on the very opening, as if purposefully retaining the expressive possibilities of that chordal progression. Although tuning was not always entirely accurate, the musical intent was (hardly surprisingly they seemed fully at home in this hyper-expressive world). The first part of the concert was certainly a demanding piece of listening, but a rewarding one.

Schiff returned to the solo limelight for a performance of V mlhách (‘In the Mist’). This was the composer’s last substantial piece for the piano. Schiff highlighted the autumnal qualities of the work, its bittersweet harmonic tang. It was one of those performances that lingers long after the last note is struck.

To conclude, the wind sextet Mladi (‘Youth’) received a life-affirming account. Despite the virtuosity of every single player involved, it was Janácek’s textural virtuosity that shone through. There is jaw-droppingly impressive imagination at work here. It was the perfect end to a wonderful concert.

Colin Clarke



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