Beethoven – Piano Trio in B-flat major, op.97, ‘Archduke’
Brahms – Piano Quartet no.1 in G minor, op.25
Boris Brovtsyn (violin)
Yuri Zhislin (viola)
Oleg Kagan (violoncello)
Ronan O’Hora (piano)
Chamber music on the grand scale here, with Beethoven’s Archduke Trio and the first of Brahms’s piano quartets, but did the performances match up? In many ways, they too were projected on such a scale, notably through a recognisable, refreshingly ‘Russian’ string tone, reminiscent of many recordings we know so well. The piano playing of Ronan O’Hora, though, proved somewhat reticent, not quite from the same mould. This ensured that his instrument did not emerge excessively dominant, especially in the Brahms work, with its notorious problems of balance, but greater heroism might have proved a better fit. What undoubtedly shone through both performances, however, was a welcome clarity of texture.
The Archduke opened in perhaps surprisingly soloistic fashion, at least from the string players, violinist Boris Brovtsyn and cellist Oleg Kagan, founder and sustainer of the Razumovsky Ensemble. This Beethoven was lyrical through and through, though with structure clearly demarcated. The blend between piano and pizzicato was especially pleasing. There was a nice spring to the rhythms in the scherzo, without loss to the lyrical impulse. The trio’s chromaticism emerged, properly, as both continuation and contrast: not an easy trick to pull off. However, it was with the reprise of the scherzo that the interpretation veered towards the sectional. Underlining of thematic material was a little laboured: by now, we should know it well enough. The slow movement proceeded with dignity, though the piano part often veered towards the matter of fact, with the strings more overtly ‘emotional’. There was a good sense of progress throughout the variations; overall, however, the mood was perhaps a little too relaxed. Lyricism should not equate, especially in Beethoven, to lack of tension. The finale once again witnessed melody to the fore, but the sectional quality of some of what had gone before was equally apparent.
Brahms’s G minor Piano Quartet opened promisingly, with an instantly ‘Brahmsian’ sound. The arrival of violist Yuri Zhislin certainly aided richness of texture, but also seemed in general to galvanise the performance. That Brahms’s lines sang so freely as they did is testament to the hard-won clarity achieved, without sacrifice to tonal refulgence, at least from the strings. Occasional lapses in intonation registered but one should not exaggerate. The second movement is an intermezzo, not a scherzo, but it retains aspects of the latter, and so it did in this performance, albeit with ghostly shadows also making their presence felt. Often on the cusp of daylight, without ever quite striding forth, this was most convincing. It was a pity, then, that the major-mode trio lacked focus. When its material recurred, following the scherzo’s reprise, it was too throwaway: it needs greater poise, more magic. The Andante con moto was more con moto than Andante; it needs greater room to breathe, emerging somewhat straitjacketed. There was, however, some gorgeous string playing, considered on its own terms, and there was a splendid martial swing to some of the later music, straining towards the symphonic. The Hungarian finale impressed with the unanimity of its opening and continued to impress when the strings led. In pizzicato passages and on other occasions when the piano should have been more prominent, there was not quite the same sense of direction, with the consequence that the movement again gave a somewhat sectional impression