ENDNOTES, July 2020
In this edition: late-romantic piano quintets by Franck and Fauré; & a classical music establishment in meltdown, by Stuart Millson
The Prague-based Wihan Quartet – winners of the London International String Quartet Competition in 1991 – has achieved enormous success in the world of chamber music. The quartet’s players are the violinists Leos Cepicky and Jan Schulmeister; the viola player, Jakub Cepicky; and cellist, Michal Kanka – artists who gave the first-ever complete Beethoven quartet cycle in the Czech capital and who have covered most of the classical, romantic and native Bohemian repertoire in the concert halls of the world. For their latest recording on the Nimbus Alliance label, they collaborate with the Japanese pianist Mami Shikimori, a graduate of the Royal College of Music and a performer at such venues as New York’s Carnegie Hall.
Choosing the late-romantic repertoire of Cesar Franck and Gabriel Fauré, the musicians show us just how, in the music of Franck, chamber compositions can achieve an almost muscular “symphonic” character – the first movement of the Franck Quintet, alone, a chapter of extraordinary, sinewy, bold musical structure. The music, composed in 1879, seems to contain all the power that orchestras and listeners have devoured in the composer’s bravura Symphony in D minor – the Wihan Quartet and Miss Shikimori generating on the Nimbus recording a great surge of sound for which the listener may have to reduce the volume – so intense is the interpretation. Gentler waters are navigated in the Lento con molto sentimento second movement, although seven minutes into this section, Franck builds to another febrile climax, the composition once again thick with intensity and suffused with a sense of melancholia, even tragedy. Restless themes announce the last movement, but there is a more subdued discussion of ideas, before the clear, onward trajectory to a triumphant conclusion is embarked upon: Franck saving all his dramatic emphasis for one last great statement.
Begun in general sketchbook outline in 1887, but not completed until 1905 (with the first performance given a year later) Gabriel Fauré’s Piano Quintet No. 1, Op. 89 has a gentler inner soul than the music of Franck, although that is not to say that the piece is just a recapitulation of the intimacy and softness of the famous Requiem, or many of the composer’s deeply sentimental pieces. Still waters can also run deep, and the understated Molto moderato opening movement – a delicate, melodic veil, suggesting light rain or trickling droplets falling from a pane of glass, or rocks in a wild brook – entices us into a quieter, more thoughtful drama than the world of Franck. Fauré’s first movement is a world of shadows and colours that merge into one another – a play of long lines, almost akin to hearing a conversation taking place in a far corner of a room, but every now and again some nugget of wisdom becoming distinct and clear.
The second movement Adagio must surely be French music at its most tender, evoking the touch of fingertips on ears of summer wheat or a lonely stretch of road leading through vineyards. In this music, one can lose oneself in a dream of intense melody – a tune of genuine beauty which appears some four-and-a-half minutes into the music that wraps itself around the score – and the heart of the listener. Cello, violins, the impressionistic darker hue of the viola – the “dappled” tones of the piano, like momentary sunlight through trees – all make for a deeply rewarding experience.
Elgar’s Piano Quintet slow movement, written some 12 years later, comes much closer to the heartfelt Fauré, suggesting, perhaps, that the Englishman’s music should have been paired with that work, rather than with the Franck. That caveat aside, QR has no hesitation in recommending this fine CD – which, in the surprisingly lighter opening of the final movement of the Fauré, will bring a smile to your face. We should not forget that the composer of one of the great requiems could also write a diversion such as the Dolly Suite.
Whimsy, though, is something of a rare commodity in today’s Britain, scarred as it is by the Coronavirus. Despite Premier League football matches being allowed to resume, the fate of classical music and the arts, locked-down for three months, does not seem to unduly bother our political masters. BBC Radio 3 has, however, risen to the occasion, keeping music alive – not least through re-broadcasts of orchestras now silent and, according to some reports, facing collapse. Quite a different fate from German orchestras, as Radio 3 broadcaster, Kate Romano, observed in a recent edition of The Guardian. The German state and its broadcasters are committed to supporting the country’s symphonic and operatic ensembles – the directors of one such body, the Elbe Philharmonic, expressing their complete confidence that live music will resume.
Yet this cultural self-confidence from Hamburg was not shared by most of the panellists on Radio 3’s ‘Music Matters’ discussion, on Saturday 20th June, hosted by presenter Tom Service. For some of his contributors, classical music needs to shed its elitist and elderly audience. It should march into a brave new world of “diversity” in which the “dinosaur” arts institutions are replaced by something altogether younger and multicultural – a tall order, considering the European ancestry of practically every composer from the baroque to Boulez.
For the Left in Britain, the public health and economic crisis in which we find ourselves presents the perfect opportunity to tear down, or – as the neo-Marxists put it, “decolonise” the past – be it a statue of Cecil Rhodes, or the men in white-tie-and-tails performing Elgar or Parry in orchestras whose roots go back to the age of Sir Henry Wood or Sir Thomas Beecham. We are entering dangerous waters in this country, but as The Times music critic Richard Morrison observed during Tom Service’s debate: “We shouldn’t have to abolish the Hallé Orchestra in order to make music relevant.”
Stuart Millson is the Classical Music Editor of Quarterly Review
CD details: Wihan Quartet – with Mami Shikimori, piano – perform Franck and Fauré. Nimbus, NI 6397