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Seen and Heard Concert Review

Schubert & Kancheli: Alban Berg Quartet, Heinrich Schiff, cello, Queen Elizabeth Hall, 9 May, 2005 (TJH)

Schubert: Quartettsatz in C minor, D703
Kancheli: Night Prayers for string quartet and tape
Schubert: String Quintet in C, D956

Giya Kancheli is one of those composers who, like Henryk Górecki or Ludovico Einaudi, may be more familiar to the occasional listener of classical music than to the serious collector. His quiet, reflective music might have Schnittke and Gubaidulina in its blood, but an all-pervasive blanket of ‘spirituality’ ensures that it never really startles the horses. ‘Night Prayers’ is a good example: here is a piece written in response to a bloody civil war that deploys the potentially hair-raising combination of string quartet and tape and lasts over 20 minutes. But what does Kancheli do with these potent ingredients? As the title might suggest, very little. It is one of those so-called ‘meditative’ works, for which one might read ‘long stretches of inactivity interspersed by some woolly musical symbolism’. Unfortunately, the symbols are hardly earth-shattering: the most compelling motif in the whole work consists of one note, repeated.

Such unpromising material can still yield a great performance, however. The Alban Berg Quartet played it on Monday night with the sort of hushed reverence usually reserved for a late Beethoven quartet, teasing out endless shades of quietude in the murky region between sound and silence. Soaring harmonics from Günter Pichler’s first violin conveyed a sense of doleful beauty, outlining simple minor scales and arpeggios, whilst the quartet as a whole played with such dedication – even passion at times – that it was easy to forgive, or at least forget, the music’s dogged banality. There were dramatic outbursts, of course, but none of them created more than a light ripple on the music’s placid surface; as a matter of fact, it was the silences – poignant and pregnant – that left the greatest impression.

The concert had opened with a work seemingly chosen to underline Kancheli’s weaknesses. Schubert wrote his Quartettsatz in 1820, an unfinished torso – like the Eighth Symphony – to what would have been a masterpiece of its genre. Schubert packs a huge amount of material into the movement’s ten-minute span, producing a work as inspired as it is concise. Here, the ABQ brought much urgency to bear on the work’s opening semiquavers, but later sacrificed too much of Schubert’s quintessentially Viennese charm for the sake of structural cohesiveness.

Thankfully, there was plenty of Vienna in the evening’s other Schubert offering, the epic C major String Quintet. Augmented by second cellist Heinrich Schiff – with whom the ABQ made their famous recording of the work for EMI – there was a great sense of occasion about Monday’s performance, which was indeed first class and even occasionally great. From the opening bars, every strand of melody had real individuality whilst being perfectly incorporated into a seamless whole; the further marvel of incredible refinement tempered by genuine warmth seemed more than anything to evoke the world of Vienna as Schubert must have experienced it. When Isabel Charisius – taking the viola chair usually reserved for her teacher Thomas Kakuska – duetted with first cellist Valentin Erben in the opening movement’s recapitulation, one could almost feel the QEH audience collective closing their eyes; they remained shut throughout a sublime reading of the Adagio, surely one of the most beautiful hymns ever set down on manuscript paper and played here with a stillness that belied the relatively brisk tempo. The Scherzo, with its fortissimo drones in both cello parts, can sometimes come across as heavy and a bit overbearing; here, though, it sounded like a true scherzo, brimming with wit and character. If the finale didn’t quite possess the spark that had fired the preceding movements, it nonetheless had enough vigour and energy to earn the five players a rousing – and richly deserved – reception at its close.

Tristan Jakob-Hoff

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