Ian Parker, piano, Vogler Quartet; Works by Schulhoff, Schubert and Shostakovich, Playhouse, April 1, 2014.

Formed in East Berlin in 1985, the Vogler Quartet has had an enviable international career, recording over almost the entire string quartet repertoire.  They have been regular visitors to our Friends of Chamber Music and have always given us particularly conscientious performances, exhibiting a sound that is invariably clean, full, and impeccably balanced.  Their enterprising programme this time combined three works that reveal different types of pain, bitterness and removal: the Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet, Schubert’s ‘Rosamunde’ Quartet and the String Quartet No. 1 of Erwin Schulhoff (1894-1942), the Czech/ Jewish composer who did not survive the Holocaust.

Ever since Decca Classics brought out their series of ‘Entartete Musik’ -- music deemed ‘degenerate’ by the Nazi regime -- we have become increasingly familiar with modern composers such as Schulhoff, Pavel Haas, Ernst Krenek, and Viktor Ullmann.  The Pavel Haas Quartet already gave us this Schulhoff quartet only a few years ago, and Daniel Hope performed the composer’s Violin Sonata No. 2 around the same time.  Schulhoff’s first quartet is a short but extremely interesting composition.  Its first and third movements feature frenetic and powerful Slavic dance rhythms while the other two movements hint at the macabre and disembodied respectively.  The second, marked ‘con maliconia grotesca’ exploits extended solo passages (notably on the viola) to conjure up the feeling of eerie café dance music.  The last is a wonderfully innovative study of nuance and restrained feeling in a disembodied world where nothing much actually moves. The combination of soft tremolos, phrase fragments, and rhythms set by a barely audible pizzicato make it very involving throughout. 

The Vogler Quartet’s interpretation was perhaps bigger and more objective than the Pavel Haas, but it was very fine indeed, featuring stunning power and drive in the more aggressive, rhythmic movements and wonderful concentration and dynamic control in the other two.  The Voglers really conveyed the architecture of this work: it seemed perfectly integrated from first note to last.  The disembodied still of the enigmatic last movement was captured perfectly, both chilling and enchanting at the same time.

Many people refer to Schubert’s ‘Rosamunde’ Quartet as ‘lovely’ because of its radiant, expansive lyricism, especially in the first two movements.  Well, here it was certainly less lovely, much more lyrically restrained and structurally cogent throughout.  At a very deliberate pace, with ultra-conscientious articulation, some listeners might have found this a little too dogged and burdened, especially in the first and third movements.  But I think that was the point of this interpretation: Schubert’s lyrical outflow and tender expression are always at battle with darker, stronger forces that aim to suppress it and drag it down.  There were some interesting offshoots of this: some sforzandi seem to have the same feel as those of the composer’s very last quartet, while the ending of the work even had a slightly macabre resemblance to ‘Death and the Maiden’. I think I really learned something in this journey.

The biting, tempestuous strength and fragile inner musings of the Shostakovich Piano Quintet were a superb recipe for ending the concert.  A favorite Vancouver pianist, Ian Parker, joined the Voglers in something of a homecoming, since they performed this very work together in 2006 for us.  Unfortunately, having been trained on more spiky and raw Russian interpretations, I found this one probably too safe and too smooth, for all the accomplishment of the playing.  Here there were just not enough jagged edges and not enough pain!  Ian Parker’s piano was often powerful and often beautiful, but I really thought he needed more ‘bite’ in his articulation and more angularity, wit, and capriciousness in his phrasing.  Overall, there was certainly very little of that almost manic fever that sometimes informs the composer’s expressive line.  The soft violin musings of the opening movement were indeed beautifully drawn, but slightly too cultivated.   In turn, the scherzo was wonderfully spun, fast and strong, but not brazen or vivid enough.  Still, an enjoyable performance to watch, just not one perfectly in touch with the composer’s nerve ends.

© Geoffrey Newman 2014