Martinů Quartet, Karel Košárek
Johannes Brahms / Antonín Dvořák
Zimmermannhaus, Brugg, 2019-01-26
Back to the Zimmermannhaus in Brugg again, this time for the evening labeled “Chamber Music IV”—the fourth chamber music event in this season. For a description of the venue see my earlier reports from concerts / recitals in this location.
The Czech Martinů Quartet was originally founded 1976 as Havlák Quartet, see also Wikipedia. In 1985, with the approval of the Bohuslav Martinů Foundation, the quartet assumed its present name Martinů Quartet, pledging to promote the chamber music of Czech composer Bohuslav Martinů (1890 – 1959). The ensemble has subsequently recorded all of Martinů’s string quartets (1995 – 1997). The current members of the ensemble are
- Lubomir Havlák, violin
- Libor Kaňka, violin
- Zbyněk Pad’ourek, viola
- Jitka Vlašánková, cello
The two violinists, Lubomir Havlák and Libor Kaňka are founding members of the ensemble, hence are looking back to a quartet history of around 43 years. The musicians playing cello and viola have changed over time; Jitka Vlašánková has been with the group for around 30 years, Zbyněk Pad’ourek for around 10 years. For this concert, the ensemble teamed up with the Czech pianist Karel Košárek (*1967)—an artist they are familiar with, and who has also joined the group for past recordings.
The program in this concert consisted of “only” two composition—major chamber music compositions, though:
- Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897): Piano Quintet in F minor op.34
- Antonín Dvořák (1841 – 1897): Piano Quintet No.2 in A major op.81, B.155
The mid-size grand piano was the one associated with this venue, a Bösendorfer Model 225.
Apparently for the first time, a chamber music event at Zimmermannhaus Brugg was more than sold out. An extra row of seats had been placed at the back wall. In addition some 8 – 10 additional chairs (with very limited view) were placed in the corners on either side of the little podium, as more people arrived. The final audience size was around 135—a lot, probably too much for this venue…
As in past instances, the organizers were kind enough to offer me a corridor seat in the rear-most row (at the back wall), which allowed me to take photos without disturbing too many listeners.
Brahms: Piano Quintet in F minor op.34
Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897) composed his Piano Quintet in F minor op.34 (his only contribution to this genre) in 1864. The composition initially started as a string quintet (two violins, viola, two cellos). Brahms transcribed this into a sonata for two pianos, before he re-transformed the work into the piano quintet. That sonata work appeared in print as op.34b, whereas the composer destroyed the original string quintet. The four movements in the final composition are as follows:
- Allegro non troppo
- Andante, un poco adagio
- Scherzo: Allegro — Trio
- Finale: Poco sostenuto – Allegro non troppo – Presto, non troppo
For this concert, the Bösendorfer grand had been shifted to the left. The tail pointed diagonally towards the rear wall, in order to leave enough space for the string quartet on the right-hand side of the small podium. This had the advantage that the majority of the listeners were able to catch at least a glimpse of the pianist’s hands throughout the performance. And it probably helped the balance, in that the open lid did not reflect all of the sound directly into the audience.
Despite the piano arrangement, when the artists entered the stage, it was obvious how limited the space really was. The musicians entered the room from the left, and the string players just managed to pass the piano and squeeze through the chair arrangement to reach their seats. The second violinist, Libor Kaňka, actually sat within the piano’s curvature—he must have had a rather distorted view onto dynamics and balance!
Arrangement / Interactions
The photos illustrate the ensemble’s physical arrangement, as well as (to some degree) the interaction, the hierarchy within the quartet. The seniority, the experience and routine of the two violinists was very obvious. There was very little visible visual interaction. Most of the communication appeared to occur through peripheral vision, the musicians largely seemed to focus on the sheet music. Still (and expectedly), Lubomir Havlák seemed to hold the “implicit” lead function. The two violinists knew their parts inside out and didn’t have much of a need to check with the others. The most interactive members of the quartet were Jitka Vlašánková and (even more) the violist, Zbyněk Pad’ourek.
Only the cellist and the violist had a chance to interact with the pianist, Karel Košárek, visually. The violinists might have guessed the pianist’s motions by peripheral vision at best. The pianist, on the other hand, certainly had no problem seeing what the string players were doing.
In past concerts in this venue (featuring a duo of piano and cello, a piano recital, a string quartet, and a piano trio) I had been really happy not just with the atmosphere, but also with the acoustics of the location. Here, for the first time, I was somewhat disappointed. It’s hard to pin-point possible reasons:
- was there simply too much audience, preventing proper “chamber music acoustics”?
- even just the sound of the Bösendorfer didn’t seem to flourish nearly as much as it did on earlier occasions: was this because of the “oblique” positioning, which projected the sound onto the (right-hand) side wall? Or did the pianist not have enough time to adjust to the peculiarities (mechanics, response, sound characteristics) of the Bösendorfer grand? It is no secret that Bösendorfer instruments differ substantially from typical (Steinway) grands.
- it wasn’t just the sound of the piano. I was equally unhappy with the sound of the string quartet. Especially in the Brahms quintet, the quartet sound felt narrow, squeezed (reflecting the spatial limitations on the podium?), also matte, somewhat dull.
Things improved gradually in the Dvořák quintet, and even more so in the encore. This left me with the impression that the artists needed more time (than expected?) to adjust to the venue with that much audience. Obviously, during rehearsals, the hall had been empty!
I. Allegro non troppo
While I was trying to adjust to sound and acoustics (see above), I instantly noted that (not surprisingly) the musicians offered a conventional, “old school” view onto this music. The vibrato was not overly heavy, but omnipresent and still fairly strong in amplitude, sometimes even affecting the purity of the intonation.
As mentioned, the string instruments (with the exception of the cello, maybe) sounded dampened, almost as if the musicians had forgotten to remove the mutes. Not only the viola had a distinctly nasal quality (projecting towards the back wall, though), but also the violins did not sound open, free. Overall, the performance seemed to lack poignancy, coherence. One should keep in mind, though, that Brahms’ piano scores are notoriously challenging, technically. There were occasional, slight coordination issues between the piano and the quartet, and the acoustics didn’t seem to allow for a proper ensemble sound. Were the musicians fighting the acoustics?
On the bright side, I was pleased to note that the balance was barely a problem: the oblique positioning of the Bösendorfer may have helped here, but more likely, Karel Košárek also wisely avoided dominating the sound. Also, I should note that the musicians repeated the exposition: often enough, this is omitted, leaving the impression of an incomplete structure.
II. Andante, un poco adagio
Here, I felt much more “at home”: the music expressed Brahms’ warm, strong emotions, the performance was atmospheric, the viola livened up, had a chance to develop and demonstrate is own, peculiar characteristics, sounded warmer than in the Allegro non troppo. Often, in this movement, the two violins (sometimes also first violin and viola) play in parallel, exhibiting excellent harmony, almost like one single voice—the benefits of decades in working together!
The one quibble (besides occasional—rare—missed keys on the piano) was again in the vibrato—especially where it appeared synchronized between the first violin and the cello. I dislike excess vibrato in general, but synchronous vibrato is even worse!
III. Scherzo: Allegro — Trio
I liked the tempo in this movement. However, the articulation in the string quartet often lacked clarity. I could not tell whether this was due to slight inaccuracies in the synchronization, or whether the transition in the syncopated voices (violins, viola) was a tad sloppy, unclear. At the same time, also the Bösendorfer grand didn’t “seem too happy”, sounded hard, slightly distorted (occasionally almost twanging). This could only be the pianist’s touch—I can’t believe that the instrument suddenly was so much out of regulation. But OK, the movement is technically challenging for the pianist, but also in the coordination within the quartet.
IV. Finale: Poco sostenuto – Allegro non troppo – Presto, non troppo
In the Scherzo da capo, also the intonation started to suffer. Good that there was some re-tuning prior to the Finale. Still, the Poco sostenuto is extremely exposed for all of the string instruments, the intonation really, really tricky. The quartet mastered this with limited success.
The fast parts were more successful in terms of coordination, also through all of the rubato, the agogics. The “Un pochettino più animato” was maybe a little too explicit, distinctly more than the “tiny little bit” that Brahms asked for. Also here, the tonal purity sometimes suffered from the excess in vibrato.
Overall Rating: ★★½
Antonín Dvořák (1841 – 1904) wrote his Piano Quintet No. 2 in A major, op.81, B.155, in 1887; the composition premiered in 1888. There are four movements:
- Allegro, ma non tanto
- Dumka: Andante con moto
- Scherzo (Furiant): Molto vivace
- Finale: Allegro
I. Allegro, ma non tanto
To me, it was very obvious that all musicians felt much more “at home” in this music! There were barely any coordination issues throughout the “Slavonic rubato” in this music. Also the tempo choices, every accelerando and ritardando, felt natural. Despite the acoustic limitations, overall, I experienced an atmospheric performance, and even the (still omnipresent) vibrato seemed to fit the Slavonic character of Dvořák’s music much better. The intonation was cleaner (though not perfect, still), and one could feel the emotional engagement, particularly on the part of the violist and the cellist.
II. Dumka: Andante con moto
No repetition in the exposition of the opening movement, sadly. Here, however, all repeat signs were observed. One little quibble with the first part: the second pass in the repeat starting at bar 16 seemed to feature a very slight unrest. In the following part, up to the Vivace, at last, the musicians appeared to “beat the acoustics”, the music started to develop warmth. But also / even here, the vibrato occasionally sounded excessive, especially in the second violin. Of course, the musicians must feel at home in this genuine, Czech dance—also here, the rubato seemed totally natural. However, the performance also sometimes had the “smell of routine”, possibly lacking spontaneity and genuine emotional engagement.
III. Scherzo (Furiant): Molto vivace
Another genuine folk dance—fast, with more engagement, at last. The music at times was (close to) enthralling—though in the fast parts, the sonority of the violins still left a lot to wish for (and I don’t think that this can simply be attributed to the acoustics!).
IV. Finale: Allegro
In the Finale, the piano clearly assumed the lead function. Sadly, also here, the violin sonority was far from brilliant—rather, often scratchy, especially in the semiquavers. I suspect that the tempo was a little fast, as there were noticeable inaccuracies in articulation and coordination. Yes, there were no major failures—but I would not call this a brilliant performance, by any means.
Overall Rating: ★★½
Encore — Louis Armstrong: “What a wonderful world!”
The artists didn’t leave without an encore—and so, they chose an arrangement of “What a wonderful world!” — a famous pop ballad, written by Bob Thiele (1922 – 1996, known as George Douglas) and George David Weiss (1921 – 2010). That song became famous and made it to the top of the charts when Louis Armstrong (1901 – 1971) recorded it in 1971.
That choice of encore may sound somewhat odd, if not shallow—however, the performance was touching and intense: I would even call it the best, most atmospheric movement of the entire concert. Interestingly (and unexpectedly), it seemed a perfect match to Antonín Dvořák’s music, with its warm emotionality, its melancholic mood—a bedside treat of sorts: thanks!