This concert provided stimulating
and adventurous programming. Mozart began the proceedings (just so the
audience could orient itself); then two works for bandoneon and string
quartet before Smetana’s under-played and under-appreciated first quartet,
‘From my life’.
But did it work? If they had dropped
the Piazzolla (of which more later), it may well have stood a chance.
First, though, came a performance of Mozart’s E flat Quartet, K428 (1783)
of remarkable depth and unanimity (with only some suspect first violin
tuning distracting from the overall impression). The ABQ plays with
such ravishing beauty that anything remotely harsh seems anathema to
its members. Octaves were supremely together, fortes were given with
a warm yet burnished tone and tempi were always well chosen. The Minuetto
brought with it the most smiles (to contrast with the trio’s darker
hues) and the first movement brought the most gasps, as the players
responded to Mozart’s melodic interplay almost telepathically. On the
minus side, if the disconnected opening of the finale had charm, it
maybe lacked the final soupçon of wit.
Adieu Satie by Austrian
composer Kurt Schwertsik (b. 1935) was fascinating. Schwertsik evidently
has a great sense of humour: if there is a chamber music equivalent
to the most fun you can have with your clothes on, this was it. Out
of the initial dissonance emerged a distorted dance, as if one was listening
to curiously familiar music through some sort of circus-mirror. Compositionally,
the piece was both suave and cheeky. There was a most beautiful moment,
though, when the bandoneon became part of the string quartet texture,
imbuing the sound with a silvery tinge. Bandoneonist Per Arne Glorvigen
enjoyed every second: so did the ABQ, and so did the audience.
To move from Schwertsik to Piazzolla
was the equivalent of moving from bandoneon to blandoneon. The Four
Tango Sensations was a succession of four examples of mind-numbing
banality. In the final piece, ‘Fear’, the cellist begins banging his
instrument: had he had enough, too? Perhaps the secret of Piazzolla’s
success, with his overtly nostalgic bent, is that he provides the perfect
opportunity to disengage one’s brain …
Squeeze-box Meister Glorvigen
even played an encore, but already enough had been enough. ‘Gagging
for Smetana’ is not a phrase I thought I would ever use in a review,
but it seems curiously apposite on this occasion.
Bedrich Smetana’s First Quartet,
‘From my life’, is the music of a tortured soul. The first three movements
are overtly nostalgic (the nostalgia truly touching in Smetana’s case),
while the finale’s dance is desperately and suddenly interrupted by
the onset of the composer’s deafness (a musical depiction of the tinnitus
the composer suffered from).
The first movement’s opening provided
an opportunity for violist Thomas Kakuska to blossom. His playing was
heartfelt and emotive, contrasting with the later tremendous energy
(which here verged on mania). In fact, as solo contributions go, it
was difficult to pick between Kakuska and cellist Valentin Erben’s sonorous
intensity in the Largo sostenuto. Importantly, this slow movement gave
the ABQ an opportunity to show that it can play with raw power (almost
with its defences down). If the finale was a little hard-pressed and
would have benefited from more abandon, the tinnitus effect here was
visceral and the fragmentary, dying ending enormously touching.
While the Mozart brought forth
everything one might expect from this source, and the bandoneon items
provided roughly equal amounts of amusement and frustration, it was
the Smetana that exemplified the greatness of the Alban Berg Quartet.