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S & H Concert Review

Mozart, Schwertsik, Piazzolla, Smetana Alban Berg Quartet, Per Arne Glorvigen (bandoneon). QEH, May 15th, 2003 (CC)


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.

Colin Clarke


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