Glittering marvels

Reviews
7 July 2015 / The Sunday Times

Glittering marvels

Sublime playing by three quartets, and poetic pianism by Melvyn Tan

The City of London Festival, now in its 53rd instalment, is less preoccupied with classical music than it used to be — it’s distinctly more populist — but this is still the main strand, and the opening event was a concert of rare quality. The engaging youngDanish String Quartet gave a programme in the glittery luxuriousness of the Plaisterers’ Hall that deftly combined the lofty and the demotic. In the first half, Quartet No 2 in F minor by Carl Nielsen — whose 150th anniversary is upon us — was followed by Beethoven’s E flat quartet, Op 74, nicknamed the “Harp”, while the second half was a stylish survey of Nordic folk music.

The Nielsen seldom appears in our concert halls, but proved a brilliant, dramatic work in the Beethovenian tradition, and was projected by these players with vividness and ardour. The Harp account, too, had terrific vitality and a fine precision; and their way with folk music was not dissimilar. They transformed raw materials from Denmark, the Faroes and Norway, in adroit arrangements with their own quartet-textural appeal. They demonstrated — as their violinist-presenter said they would — that rock’n’roll originated not in jazz, but in a tiny village in Norway. And they revealed to me, if unintentionally, how much of the phraseology and rhythm of a great Finnish, rather than Danish composer, Sibelius, stems from such sources.

Curiously (happily!) enough, the Harp was to be heard again a few days later, when the Borodin Quartet resumed the two-year Wigmore Hall double cycle of Beethoven’s and Shostakovich’s string quartets with which they are marking their 70th anniversary. It was clear to me at once that they could not invest it with the youthful spring-in-the-step of the Danish group, and there was something in the solemnity of the hall that made one miss the festive atmosphere of the City. Yet authentic youthfulness is about the only virtue to which this distinguished ensemble cannot lay claim. They have loomed grandly over the chamber-musical scene for decades (for years in residence at Aldeburgh), and attained a refinement of expression, an effortlessness of technique, an interpretative poise, to marvel at.

One certainly could at Wigmore Hall, where they offered a pair of programmes, two days apart. The readings of the two Shostakovich quartets — No 6 as the centrepiece of the first concert, No 3 taking up the first half of the second — had a dazzling authority doubtless informed by direct contact with the composer, and by which they moved between his insouciant classicism and emotional twistedness with utmost imperturbability, often, indeed, almost imperceptibly. This kind of double-speak was not without its uses in their Beethoven playing — notably for the F minor, Op 95 (“Serioso”) quartet’s finale, whose agitated falling-third figure burst forth with a paradoxical quality of classical containment yet tragic desolation.

Back to the City of London Festival, and the second main chamber-musical event: a recital in line with this year’s Singaporean theme by the pianist Melvyn Tan and the T’ang Quartet, both from that country, though the former long resident here. In the magically fresh, wood-panelled “shoebox” acoustics of the Merchant Taylors’ Hall, the T’angs gave a splendidly atmospheric and biting account of Janacek’s Quartet No 1 (“Kreutzer Sonata”), a labyrinth of stark originality in which one could wonderfully lose oneself. With Tan, they played Dvorak’s ultra-melodic Piano Quintet in A, though here the listener’s art was rather to relish the relentless lyrical inspiration while not resenting too much the somewhat windy formal structures with which it coexists.

Yet the occasion had been transformed at its midpoint by Tan’s solo performance of Liszt’s Three Concert Etudes, S144. One wasn’t at all prepared for this modest manifestation of complete, devastating musicality. Virtuosity became poetry; phrasing became human breathing (not only in the third study, Un sospiro!); and the whole breadth of the keyboard (a modern Steinway, but lent a homely immediacy as of a period instrument) was constantly commanded as though a single handspan. It was pianism as stirring and illuminating as any I’ve heard.

Published 5 July 2015

Paul Driver