PIERS LANE & ENSEMBLE Q STRING QUARTET
Queensland Conservatorium, Griffith University
Thursday October 7, 2021
Yet again, a professional performer has had to cut his pandemic cloth to suit prevailing circumstances. Expatriate pianist Piers Lane was all set to tour the country for Musica Viva in collaboration with the Sydney-based Goldner String Quartet. Lockdown put an end to that organizational fantasy but Lane did get to exercise his craft in the rarefied double-doughnut purity of a city very familiar to him. As substitute for the Goldners came a quartet made up of Ensemble Q members: violins Natsuko Yoshimoto and Anne Horton, viola Imants Larsens, cello Trish Dean. I’m not sure how far back Yoshimoto’s relationship with the Ensemble stretches prior to her recent assumption of the co-concertmaster position with the Queensland Symphony Orchestra, but she slotted in ideally with her colleagues on this night, heading a highly persuasive reading of Szymanowski’s Quartet No. 2 – a work with which this group has had experience already in 2021.
In this reading, you were immediately inveigled into the composer’s unique sound world by the rapid sul tasto pattern-work from Horton and Larsens that, despite its harmonic distress on paper, gently backgrounded an excellently spun at-the-double-octave duet from Yoshimoto and Dean; the atmosphere a delicate web up to the punchy jump to forte at bar 28 where you realize just how aggressive yet disciplined Szymanowski’s counterpoint can be. While the players coped with the movement’s central matter, you were impressed by the congruent ensemble work, each attack finely slotted into position to sustain the dissonant argument. As one simply effective instance, it was hard to go past the lead back to the first subject, a duet for both violins between bars 60 and 67 that could have come from one instrument.
Yet again, Yoshimoto demonstrated her chamber music insights, leading from the front; not carrying her colleagues but heading the enterprise without hogging the limelight, as heard in the whispered final two bars’ close to a benevolent G Major cadence with plagal suggestions.
Mutes off for the second movement Vivace where aggression oscillates with languor and this group kept the prize in constant sight: making formal sense of the piece’s abrupt turns from rapidity to calando and sostenuto with a meno mosso or two along the way, Here also you could admire the soaring power of Yoshimoto’s high register between bars 194 and 205, mounted against rhythmically disjunct pizzicati from all other lines. As the slow last movement opened, Horton’s exposed line came across as clumsy, more in outline than pitching, even if order came quickly on the heels of Larsens’ arrival in the canon. All four musicians found a rich and eloquent vein from the bar 21 Doppio movimento point, the atmosphere rising to very aggressive very quickly after the pivotal Moderato compression of argument, preceded by a delicious pair of brief affretando passages in bars 45 and 47.
Yoshimoto displayed her command of idiom and linear crafting just as much in these pages as earlier in the quartet, sharing the honours with Horton in a downward spiralling duet from bar 14 on and giving room for some penetrating viola exposures, Larsens owning a fine and forward tenor voice of exceptional and distinctive character. But the group played with exemplary control and passion throughout the work’s precipitate last moments – no scraping, no line over-prominent, the timbral placement rich and ardent.
Lane then appeared for a solo, shedding light on Lili Boulanger’s Theme et variations which the young composer eventually finished writing in 1914. It’s not a piece that has hit a posthumous big time, but, as Lane pointed out, the work isn’t a significant one – except as a bump along Boulanger’s career-path trajectory. In this score, she delivered exactly what she nominated: this is one of the most lucid, even plain-speaking set of variants you’ll come across, especially in a 20th century context. The only place where the theme becomes difficult to pick out is during Variation 7, pages Boulanger describes as Theme totalement modifie: the time signature changes and the theme gains some extra feet in its second half.
This reading emphasized the work’s sombre C minor character, Lane giving loads of sustained resonance to the first Theme a la basse and preserved the atmosphere through No. 2 Sur la tete du theme and later in No. 4 La basse et le surtout. Fortunately, the account of No. 6 Theme modifie a la partie superieure proved a welcome change of texture, if not scene, with its rippling underpinning layers of demi- and semiquaver figuration. But the dour character returns all too soon, and in spades for the final Theme a la basse where the final stretch from bar 141 to 148 is an aural sinking away to nothing – no hope, no promise, eventually no movement. All right. Thanks to Lane for dusting this piece off but I suspect its prevailing post-Brahmsian thickness of texture and reliance on harmonic shifts almost exclusively for interest will work against its proliferation on recital schedules.
Both parties, Ensemble Q and Lane, came together for the great Brahms Piano Quintet in F minor, their collaboration resulting in a performance of warm conviction and coherence. Lane kept very little back dynamically, trusting that the quartet could hold its own; a confidence that was almost universally justified except for those passages of grandiose piano striding in tandem with the strings. What sprang out from the performance early on was the strength of Larsens’ contribution, as at bar 27 and his elegant melodic shaping between bars 55 and 58. Having chosen not to repeat the exposition, the ensemble worked with polished sensitivity through the mainly subterranean development to the last segment which was peppered with excellent passages like the duet for Yoshimoto and Larsens from bar 230: one of the performance’s memorable flashes of excellence.
It wasn’t just a case of balancing the piano’s heavy contributions. At the recapitulation in particular, where the action is wrenchingly powerful, you heard an ensemble in ideal balance where each line could be discerned, even Dean’s mirroring of Lane’s bass. Further, the players seized with passion on those moments of unstoppable affirmation, like the burst into D flat Major at bar 286 and the subsequent arpeggio feast till the end, and hurled them out to formidable effect.
After the storm of that opening Allegro, Brahms’ following Andante is an emotional balm, loaded with melting solos and duets, as when the piano eventually lays off at bars 25/26; Horton urging out a melody line of refined sweetness, then combining with Larsens for an exemplary unison octave passage, chiefly of triplets, that emerges and recedes into soft meanderings – which might well be the prime characteristic of these pages. Dean stayed just the right side of overbearing in her lengthy lyrical duet with Yoshimoto beginning at bar 83 and persisting with some interruptions until bar 117 when the composer lets his material collapse in on itself for a hushed, benevolent conclusion.
Still, there’s no getting away from Lane’s dominance in this movement, opening with a carefully poised, bass-rich statement that returned to intensely moving effect at bar 75, those parallel 3rds murmured over with lapidary care. A turn of the page showed us a different approach in the vital Scherzo, the pianist taking off the gloves for exhilarations like the fortissimo explosion for everyone at bar 57 and (my favourite) those B flat oscillations between keyboard and strings across bars 100-109, followed by an extension of the same pattern at bar 158: splendidly compelling in its negotiation here. While the attack remained dogged in the movement’s Trio, pianist and strings ladled on the lyricism across the first two of its three pages, the Scherzo repeat an active powerhouse to be savoured right up to its rough-hewn end.
While we can all appreciate the craft of this work’s Sostenuto/Allegro finale, the working-out comes as a let-down after the satisfying emotional splaying of its precedents, the whole verging on disappointing with the rather whiney theme brought into play at the bar 94’s un pochettino piu animato. However, that’s a story for another decade and you had to appreciate the stamina of this ensemble which followed the composer’s jumps and transformations with assiduous zeal. Once again, you were able to appreciate Lane’s consideration, notably at places where the competition is fragilely placed, like the triplet-heavy stretch from bar 137 through to bar 159 where the piano has a reinforced top line and a potentially thunderous left-hand counterpoint. As in the first movement, the interpretation held a consistency of outline, the return of main themes en clair impressing as organically achieved – which is the formidable gift and problem of developing variation.
Speaking of stamina, that quality shone out keenly in the solid (150 bars!) coda to this finale, pages where the pace is furious and the players’ negotiation skills are tested over and over, especially those of the pianist who is involved in a juxtaposition of elements that bring to mind the inbuilt energy of the composer’s piano concertos. Lane missed the company of his Goldner allies, with whom he has made at least 8 recordings: he told us so. But I don’t believe any of us could find fault with the Ensemble Q players; rather, this night opened my eyes and ears to the existence of a local string quartet of impressive accomplishment.