Sunday, 12 February 2012

Pražák Quartet - Mozart and Brahms, 12 February 2012

Wigmore Hall

Mozart – String Quartet no.21 in D major, KV 575
Brahms – String Quartet no.3 in B-flat major, op.67

Pavel Hula, Vlastimil Holek (violins)
Josef Klusoň (viola)
Michal Kaňka (cello)

This was a puzzling concert from the Pražák Quartet, both works performed receiving distinctly mixed performances. Perhaps oddest was the opening movement of Mozart’s first ‘Prussian’ quartet. The exposition was strangely unstable, the players seemingly unable to settle upon a tempo, and when finally they did, it sounded far too fast for ‘Allegretto’, more like ‘Allegro [vivace]’. Despite some notably rich-toned viola playing from Josef Klusoň, the reading simply did not hang together, much of the movement sounding not only rushed but skated over. The ensuing ‘Andante’ was much more like it: the tempo worked, and was settled upon. There was, moreover, an apt mood of sweet elegance to the movement as a whole, and a far stronger sense of direction too. Vibrato would have horrified the puritans: good! The brisk minuet (one-to-a-bar, with a vengeance) needed to smile more; it emerged unduly fiercely, a little like a caricature of Beethoven. The high cello line in the trio sang clearly; perhaps it was emphasised a little too strongly, but at least we were reminded of its origins in the Prussian king’s cello-playing. Solos in the finale were better integrated. However, although eventful, it was rushed, even garbled at times. And that was before I recalled Mozart’s tempo marking: ‘Allegretto’. Grace, alas, stood at a premium.

Brahms’s B-flat major quartet suffered from a hard-driven first movement. The density of the composer’s argument came across, likewise to a certain extent Beethovenian antecedents (especially opp. 74 and 95) but Brahms never benefits from sounding frantic. Richer string tone would have been desirable too. That was forthcoming in the slow movement, which achieved a successful union of gravity and Classical poise. There was now a real sense of where the music was heading, though the journey remained as important as the destination. The third movement evinced nervous intensity and a delight in Brahms’s metrical intricacies and dislocations. Despite a barrage of coughing, this was highly, dramatically involving. A charming traversal of the finale’s variations was generally well characterised, though there were occasions when a little more (German?) intensity would have been welcome; Brahms sounded too much like Dvořák here.

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