Basel, Switzerland: Tuesday 29 April 2008
The last time I had the privilege of hearing Il Trittico play Raff, it was in the appropriate setting of the Swiss lakeside town of Rapperswil. Appropriate because that was where he began his working life and also because the venue itself afforded a splendid view of Raff's birthplace of Lachen across the lake. The performance of the Piano Quintet on that occasion was superb, and it's good to know that we are soon to have their recording of it, to add to their interpretation of the Piano Trios. The prospect of them playing the two Piano Quartets in one evening was therefore an especially enticing one.
Although it happens to be pianist Jan Schultz's academic base, the choice of Basel for this concert was also one which had biographical significance. It was in this city, squeezed up against the French and German borders, that Raff, unknown, penniless and soaking wet, met Liszt for the first time at a recital the virtuoso was giving there. Within days he was travelling with Liszt to Germany and his career had begun.
The Kleinersaal of the Basel Hochschüle für Musik is an intimate modern space with capacity for about 100, entirely appropriate for what the violinist Jonathan Allen described as "a run-through; something between a rehearsal and a concert". The trio, joined by English violist David Greenlees (playing a magnificent Stradivarius), are preparing to record the Piano Quartets and this was their first public airing of the two works.
From the opening bars of the G major Quartet it was clear that Il Trittico have now got Raff in their blood. The opening Allegro is a broadly conceived movement which in this performance was quite rhapsodic in feel, although it never lost the propulsive momentum so essential to Raff's first movements.The writing calls for true ensemble playing and this was amply demonstrated by the performers as lines hopped seamlessly from desk to desk. The combination of Jan Schultz's diamond-sharp pianism and Daniel Pezzotti's silkily sonorous cello dominated the very attractive Allegro molto second movement to seductive effect. The gradual ratcheting up of the tempo and sensitive handling of the alternation of the piece's two contrasting ideas was very satisfying. Schultz lead off the slow Andante quasi Adagio with a beautifully judged account of its long, lovely opening melody but here violinist Jonathan Allen came into his own with some sweet but never mawkish playing, frequently echoed by Greenlees in subtle support. The sudden increase in tempo just before the end of the piece, after all the passion seemed spent, was a tremendously effective touch. The jolly Allegro finale could perhaps have stood some more robust treatment and certainly generally faster tempi at the beginning. The prominent pizzicato passages were also hesitant, but such criticism is carping. We knew from the start that this performance was "work in progress" and overall Greenlees and Il Trittico had every justification to feel as pleased as they looked at the end of it. All in all it was a very sensitive and exciting performance from a quartet who know exactly how to play Raff.
The Second Piano Quartet in C minor, like its companion, opens with an expansive Allegro, but one which is rather mellower and episodic in character. The string trio has most of the argument, engaging in a sort of conversazione decorated by the piano. Even in this more fractured design, Schultz's piano was sensitively woven into the piece's texture. Interest was maintained by sensitive variations in tempi and dynamics but momentum was never lost, so that this 14 minute long discursive movement didn't outstay its welcome. That said, it would have benefited from being tightened up somewhat, shaving perhaps a minute off the overall time. The second movement Allegro was taken at a cracking pace and once again the strings are the stars of the show as cello, violin and viola successively take the spotlight. The rhythmic thrust was quite irresistible and hugely attractive in this lyrical and ingratiating piece. As with the G major Quartet the piano, now fully integrated into the ensemble, introduces the gorgeous slow movement Larghetto which maintains its mood of regret-tinged melancholy throughout. It's classic Raff. There was some lovely playing here by Allen and Pezzotti in particular. After a call to attention from the piano and answering rhetoric first from the violin and then cello, the dancing Allegro finale established a generally fizzing pace, interrupted by the odd reflelective pause, which suited the music perfectly. It tumbled on its way with so many displays of seemingly effortless virtuosity from all four players that one forgot that this was only a "dry run". It was already music making of a very high order.
The acoustic of the Kleinersaal meant that these came across as very "big" performances indeed and by the end of the evening the ears certainly craved some relief but, although the players were at pains to point out that their interpretations weren't yet as polished as they would eventually be, this was a very fulfilling experience. Their playing in both works was already at such a high standard and so attuned to Raff's idiom, that one was able to concentrate on the merits of these two, to me, largely unknown works. At forty minutes long apiece, they are written on a grand scale and yet with their abundance of grateful melody, colourful incident and unfailingly inventive and engaging writing they are clearly major works in Raff's oeuvre. In Allen, Greenlees, Pezzotti and Schultz they have interpreters worthy of them and we can look forward with very keen anticipation to their eventual release on CD, the recording sessions for which will be later this year.