Phillip T Young Recital Hall
July 31, 2012
Much has been made of the quasi-orchestral nature of Mendelssohn's Octet. Numerous conductors have directed performances by string orchestras; the composer himself, in 1829, arranged the scherzo for orchestra in order to interpolate it into a performance of his Symphony No.1.
But anyone who therefore believes that Mendelssohn "really" intended the work as orchestral should remind themselves of his advice to the performers at the beginning of the score: "this octet must be played in the style of a symphony in all parts; the pianos and fortes must be very precisely differentiated and be more sharply accentuated than is ordinarily done in pieces of this type".
Surely such directions would be superfluous if Mendelssohn had actually conceived the work for orchestra?
This year's Victoria Summer Music Festival closed with an excellent performance of one of Chamber Music's Greatest Hits, given by the combined forces of the Alcan and Emily Carr quartets.
The music began almost sotto voce, seemingly growing out of the preceding silence, but there was nothing reticent about the playing, although (happily) Laura Andriani resisted the temptation (not all violinists are able) to treat the opening movement like a violin concerto; the music was swept along by the propulsiveness of its inner voices.
The nicely-contoured andante featured some delicious interplay between the musicians while the famous scherzo (the only movement Mendelssohn did not revise when the work was finally published, some seven years after its composition), taken very quickly, cast its usual spell.
The finale, by contrast, propelled into motion by the growling cello of Alasdair Money, was perhaps a shade steadier in tempo than one frequently hears; but this is not a criticism, as musical momentum can often suffer when the tempo is too fast. Not here.
An exhilarating close to the festival.
"For anyone listening to [Shostakovich's] quartets in sequence", writes Hugh Ottaway, "[the sixth quartet] is certainly the point at which to pause and reflect on Shostakovich's mastery of the medium and of his own thought-processes within it."
The Emily Carr String Quartet opened the evening with a splendid account of one of Shostakovich's less troubled - one hardly likes to call it "cheerful" - works in any medium.
Although, in the opening movement, the surface of the music was all amiability, one could not ignore the sinister undertow; the quartet's control of dynamics was superb.
Indeed, the entire quartet is a marvellous tightrope walk between superficial cheeriness and underlying unease and one which the Emily Carrs walked to perfection.
One could hardly imagine a greater contrast between the Shostakovich and the first quartet of Nikolai Kapustin. in 1998.
Leaving aside all questions of musical personality, there is one essential difference between the two works: the circumstances of their composition. The Shostakovich was composed in 1956, the Kapustin in 1998.
While Shostakovich knew that he was walking that tightrope and that the smallest misstep was likely to be fatal, Kapustin could compose whatever he wished, without having to worry about what the commissars might make of it.
I wish I could be more positive about the quartet in question; it was undoubtedly extremely well played by the Alcan Quartet, who produced a rich, lush tone and some dazzling syncopated passages.
The problem, for me, is the composer's jazz-influenced idiom, which sounds more like the Quintette du Hot Club de France than anything else. Indeed, there were times when the quartet seemed to consist of four Stephan Grapelli clones.
But a 1930s idiom really appropriate to music written at the end of the 20th century? Especially when the formal treatment employs devices which are even older?
My notebook tells the tale: "too long by half", "lovely noise, but tiresome" culminating in the final pages, where Kapustin seems to think that playing everything at twice the speed is a substitute for a proper coda.
As I have said, the Alcan Quartet played this supremely well and the audience definitely seemed to enjoy it. For me, though, it was a case of "I do not love thee Dr. Fell / The reason why I cannot tell / But this I know and know full well / I do not love thee Dr. Fell."
Despite my own reservations about the Kapustin, this was an excellent final programme and a fine way to end the festival.