Paul Lewis, piano; Vertavo String Quartet, Works by Mozart, Bartok and Dvorak, Chan Centre, November 9, 2014

Even these days, I am somehow tempted to think of the Vertavo Quartet as a young and upcoming Norwegian ensemble featuring four engaging and talented female artists.  The fact of the matter is that the ensemble is now just approaching its 30th anniversary.  Coming together originally as teenagers, they have produced more than twenty recordings, mainly on the Simax label. Acclaimed British pianist Paul Lewis joins the group for their 2014 tour, this concert offering a programme as wide ranging and innovative as I have ever seen.  Starting from the string quartet transcription of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 12, K 414, we then moved all the way to Bartok’s last string quartet, finishing off with the famous Dvorak Piano Quintet, Op. 81.  An interesting combination indeed, and one that produced a thoroughly enticing and individual response from the performers.

I have not witnessed a concert featuring string quartet transcriptions of the Mozart concertos for many a year.  Decades ago, I do remember seeing Peter Frankl playing a number of these for the CBC, but nothing since.  The few recordings in this arrangement have come and gone but the fact that one of them involved Alfred Brendel (with the Alban Berg Quartet) playing K. 414 may offer some explanation for Paul Lewis’ identical interest.  In this performance of the concerto, the Vertavo’s excelled in bringing out the orchestral feeling of their part, capturing its sparkle, motion and dramatic sense quite delightfully, voices particularly well contrasted.  I did not miss the full orchestra. Paul Lewis matched them excellently, providing especially alert and buoyant pianism, always clean but also bringing out the sharper contrasts in the writing.  This was not serene, liquid Mozart playing -- somewhat bolder and animated, occasionally hinting at the angularity of Beethoven.  I enjoyed it. 

The Bartok Sixth Quartet takes one to a very different world.  This interpretation was most revealing, capturing a wide range of expressive, inward hues within a much warmer tonal fabric than normal.  The Vertavo’s was not a performance full of earthy, spiky contrasts such as one might find in most readings ranging from the Takacs to the Emersons.  Here Bartok often inhabits a meditative world where the biting rhythmic attack, grotesquerie, and the sheer astringency of the writing make their appearance tellingly but only fleetingly, virtuoso élan being traded quickly for intimacy or eloquent cultivation.  I thought the Vertavo Quartet carried this off quite splendidly, building their kaleidoscope of texture and feeling in such a way as to ultimately lay bare the emotional numbness at the end of the work.  Sometimes the expressive yearning even seemed to find the world of Janacek and, at other times, early Schoenberg, but again everything seemed to flow as an integrated and subtle whole.  Of course, one might ask the question of whether this type of interpretation can be truly idiomatic.  Should this modern masterpiece, written just at the beginning of World War II, really look backward to earlier post-romantic traditions, especially when the composer himself disavowed such?  Given the other warmer Bartok interpretations that have come my way recently, perhaps the answer has become increasingly ‘yes’. 

We have heard many different interpretations of Dvorak’s famous Piano Quintet but it would be difficult to find anything like what we heard at this concert.  I have often thought that ensembles, in their quest for buoyant rhythm and high spirits often do not understand how much dumka feeling pervades the entire work, and not just the Andante which bears this designation.  However, there was little to worry about here since moment-to-moment alternation between rhythmic attack and melancholic musing distinguished the whole reading. Rhythmic passages were indeed treated very strongly, cuttingly, full of frenzy, the passion then relaxing into a sustained inner expression, only to be broken again, and so on.  With repeats seemingly present in all movements except the Scherzo – here almost a brief intermezzo with a serenely-beautiful Trio -- the work emerged as an extended and all-consuming fantasia of feeling and emotional turbulence.  I have certainly never heard a longer or more complex rendering.

That this performance was very sophisticated goes without saying, and it probed a range of feelings that one seldom encounters.  But was it too much?  I think probably.  What struck me is how serious and overwrought much of it was, invariably calling attention to deeper feelings and passions at the expense of the simplicity and the more innocent, unencumbered joys that  also dominate the composer’s world.  The extended piano passages in the middle of the second movement and at the beginning of the finale were impeccably drawn but did not really succeed in opening out their full charm or colour.  I actually found my concentration waning in the dumka movement, the execution somewhat laboured at the end.  There were traces of calculation in the finale too, not least the beautiful ending that was too effusive.  These concerns cannot override what an accomplishment this performance was -- a genuine rethink of the work.  But my feeling is that the true beauty of this work cannot surface if everything is made emotionally revealing; beauty flows only selectively and that is why it is so captivating when it does.

This was a remarkably engaging concert, traversing such a range of works and emotional environments.  Discussing their early years, the Vertavo Quartet recalls: “We were bold. No fingering was too risky and no musical idea too strange for us to embrace…. Our goal was to play everything at the extremes of temperatures”.  Thirty years have passed, and this concert made me understand why I might still think of them as a young quartet.


© Geoffrey Newman 2014