Huntley Dent has written on these pages “two musical instruments rise above all others in their humanity — the violin, because it comes closest to imitating the singing voice, and the piano, because it comes closest to conveying human nature.” So in the simple pairing of the two, a pair of thoughtful and sensitive musicians can ‘say’ more while ‘speaking’ less than many symphonies. Such are Anthony Marwood and Aleksandar Madžar, who play with such humanity to a listener, with originality and directness, with much thought and care. They play with emotional directness even while bravely and generously plumbing the emotional complexity and ambiguity of the difficult music they have chosen.
It is always fun when a new string quartet comes to town, especially when they bring strange and different music with them. György Kurtág is not very strange, but nonetheless somewhat rare around here, and more importantly excellent listening, so I’m grateful to the Kuss Quartet for bringing it, even if short, though holding its own among the more usual fair. And the encore of Mozart’s Cassation in C was entirely beyond the call of duty in such an enormous and dense program, especially considering the concentrated, caring manner of their playing.
I’ve written many times about musicians’ giving spiels before they play and how intrusive this can be on the music by denying that important transition from the audience’s excited chatter as they find their seats, to the musicians’ walking on, to the silence before the first note. These spiels are very different from the pre-concert talks which are common now and elective, take place well before the actual concert, and can be informative. Here was a more egregious example — first violin Edward Dusinberre gave an entire short lecture before the Janáček and Britten quartets, complete with short musical excerpts just before they hoed into the actual piece. Then Gordon Kerry himself was brought on to talk about his piece just before they played it. I think even a “modern audience” can take its music straight and have a fighting chance of understanding it. The lecturing seemed to throw them off, the words over-specifying and materializing the music, being too heavily prosaic for the music to bear, though perhaps jet-lag and fatigue from touring, or just a bad day contributed, but it was disappointing that the music of this usually very fine group sounded so flat.
In the broad diversity of chamber music genres, the piano trio is particularly full of character, though perhaps sometimes implicitly considered less pure than its cousin the string quartet. The trio is a strange, asymmetrical animal, even lopsided, though not the less graceful, very colorful for its simplicity, with an a priori transparency thanks to the extreme contrasts between the instruments. With all the instruments so plainly audible all the time, their relationships are so much more ambiguous than soloist and accompaniment, the musicians’ playing becomes very soloistic by necessity. There never seems to be a leader in a trio, they are individualistic, preferring a kind of mutually controlled anarchy. Each instrument sounds very much at home in its part; a compositional idea is either suited the grouping or it isn’t, and when it is, it is unmistakable. The breadth of range — in pitch, timbre, and others — of this little group can be astonishing, while the texture is far from smooth. Excellent musicians can meet one another halfway and make very tight, solid sounds, but naturally there is a certain jazzy friction from the natural gaps in the texture, the gulfs between the characteristic sounds of the three instruments; it is no wonder the trio is so popular for making Jazz. Where the colors of a string quartet can be rich, deep, muted or vivid, the trio is pastel.
Such a broad range of small detail, an infinite diversity of subtle variations in tone, attack, dynamics etc., more than is practical even for a composer to write into a score, is possible, even common on the string instruments, especially the violin, and it seems to be much easier to find violinists capable of nuanced playing than any other instrument, flute, horn, oboe, for example, though maybe not piano, though these instruments are not directly comparable. The string quartet then presents so many musical possibilities not to mention possible combinations of musical personalities, for both the performer and composer, and such opportunities for experimentation with the genre’s huge density of detail, relative speed of composition, and fantastic possibilities at the frontiers of musical sound. It is easy too to compare a symphonist’s writing string quartets to a painter’s drawing of finished studies, and this tradition continues, even if new symphonies and operas are relatively rare, as we see here in this program which includes the newish work by Gordon Kerry whose pieces, like Ian Munro’s last year, will feature in most of this year’s chamber music concert tours organized by Musica Viva.