Tuesday 8 December 2015

Uchida/Quatuor Ebène - Haydn, Ravel, and Schumann, 6 December 2015

Wigmore Hall

Haydn – String Quartet in C major, op.20 no.2
Ravel – String Quartet in F major
Schumann – Piano Quintet in E-flat major, op.44

Mitsuko Uchida (piano)
Pierre Colombet, Gabriel Le Magadure (violins)
Adrien Boisseau (viola)
Raphaël Merlin (cello)

The Vienna Konzerthaus might, for a month, have become my new favoured hall – strictly, a house of more than one hall – but returning to the Wigmore Hall reminded me, just in case I needed reminding, that the Wigmore Hall not only stands as first among equals for chamber music; it is, simply, the best in the world. This programme from the Quatuor Ebène and Mitsuko Uchida would have offered a great attraction anywhere and certainly did in musically overflowing London, soon selling out; the resulting concert proved equally impressive.

This was certainly one of the best performances of a Haydn quartet I have heard, constantly taking one by surprise – in the best way. The intriguing opening sonority – for which responsibility should be shared between composer and players: high cello singing above second violin and viola – sounded redolent of the old sonata di chiesa or still more venerable music for viol consort, but with the most modern of means, in itself a lesson for apostles of ‘authenticity’. This was never, thank God, a vibrato-free, or even vibrato-lite, zone. Out of such an opening, there blossomed full Classical tone and style. Counterpoint, of course, remained Janus-faced, generatively so. The rest of this extraordinary movement was both furious and complex, in work and performance. One needed to listen, and was finely rewarded when one did. The opening unison of the second movement ‘spoke’ almost like a recitativo acommpagnato, looking back to the late Baroque and sideways perhaps, even if coincidentally so, to Gluck, yet also looking forward, even pre-empting Beethoven. I thought of the slow movement to the Fourth Piano Concerto, Orpheus famously taming the furies. Transition to a more lyrical plane sounded somehow both fragile and secure – something, perhaps, to do with the relationship between melody and harmony – and again seemed to beckon toward the Romantic conception, right or wrong, of Beethoven having burst formal bonds. The fury of subsequent unison outbursts intensified such dialectical tension, preparing the way for different yet related dialectical ambiguities in the minuet (connected, of course, to its predecessor). Haydn, rightly, emerged as every bit as ‘difficult’ a composer as Brahms, Schoenberg, or, yes, Beethoven. The great tension built up, as great as anything in Beethoven, was worked out with a triumphant finale worthy of Haydn’s sometimes unhappy pupil. Yet there was also the intellectual nonchalance akin to late Mozart. The audacity of work and performance truly took my breath away. Magnificent!

Ravel received a performance, which, if less surprising, was no less excellent. The players offered a more conventionally polished sound from the outset; one could hardly have – or wish to have – ‘unpolished’ Ravel. There was sheen aplenty for fury and placidity alike, as the composer surely demands. (Presumably somebody somewhere is claiming that any Ravel performance daring to show a little vibrato, a little beauty of tone, is an outright abomination, but who cares?) Subtle rubato emerged from the material rather than being imposed upon it. The scherzo thrilled, sparks duly, precisely, lovingly flying. Tenderness, though, lay at its heart. There was an almost Webern-like mystery to the slow movement, an inscrutability to the opening material and its development: seemingly unpredictable, even when one ‘knew’ it. This was not easy Ravel; nor should it have been. There was great sweetness but we also experienced great reticence and an almost Debussyan ambiguity: through, not in spite of, compositional and performative precision. The finale opened, seemingly hurtling towards the vortex, à ‘La Valse’¸taking with it material it recalled from before, but with progress as mysterious as that in the preceding movement. The Quatuor Ebène offered playing of a febrile intensity such as to attain true climax.

Uchida added her famously pellucid piano tone and unforced, unshowy musicality to the ensemble for Schumann’s Piano Quintet. I really cannot understand why we do not hear this wonderful work more often; maybe ‘we’ do, and I have just been unfortunate in missing out on performances. The opening of the first movement was forthright yet melting, solo – by which, I do not just mean the piano – and ensemble playing equally tender. Schumann’s myriad of instrumental combinations were rendered wonderfully alive. Closeness to Brahms was both maintained and guarded against; this sounded ‘like’ no one other than Schumann, whatever connections presented themselves. Indeed, at some points, both here and in the second movement, it was Schubert and the Lied tradition that came to my mind, composer and performance seemingly constructing and deconstructing song before our ears. All, in a sense, were both songbirds and their grim hunters. Uchida maintained the harmonic basis for all that happened, as if playing for an instrumental Frauenliebe und -leben. The scherzo, by contrast, showed a strength of purpose which it was more or less impossible not to think of as Beethovenian, underlying even the relative relaxation of the first trio. Concision, both in work and performance, were certainly worthy of Beethoven, and it was difficult to avoid the sense of Schumann touching Brahms’s shoulder in the second trio. The exhilaration was such that we might almost already have heard our finale. That, of course, required something different, and received it, in what must surely be one of Schumann’s most creative responses to the ‘finale problem’. The music emerged in all its variegated glory and, at least as important, with all its emotional weight. Bachian lessons were learned – and returned with interest.