Faust, Schreiber, Tamestit, Queyras, Melnikov
Schumann: Chamber Music Works opp. 41/1, 44, 47
Tonhalle am See, Zurich, 2023-11-03
2023-11-13 — Original posting
Ein denkwürdiges Kammermusikkonzert der Extraklasse mit Isabelle Faust — Zusammenfassung
Das Programm stand ganz im Zeichen von Robert Schumann (1810 – 1856), resp. dessen “Kammermusikjahr” 1842. Auf das Streichquartett in a-moll, op.41/1 folgte das Klavierquartett in Es-dur, op.47, sowie nach der Pause das Klavierquintett in Es-dur, op.44—das vielleicht bekannteste und populärste Kammermusikwerk der deutschen Romantik. Das Konzert begeisterte von A bis Z—es erfüllte in allen Teilen die sehr hoch gesteckten Erwartungen. Dabei führte das Fortepiano zu einem Erlebnis der besonderen Art. Es verhalf in den Werken mit Klavier zu einer klanglichen Ausgewogenheit und Transparenz, die mit dem modernen Konzertflügel schlicht unerreichbar sind.
Die Interpreten dankten für den frenetischen Applaus mit einer Zugabe, dem langsamen zweiten Satz, Andante, un poco adagio, aus dem Klavierquintett in f-moll, op.34 von Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897).
Das Konzert zum Mitnehmen
Table of Contents
- Concert & Review
- Schumann: String Quartet in A minor, op.41/1
- Schumann : Piano Quartet in E♭ major, op.47
- Schumann : Piano Quintet in E♭ major, op.44
- Encore — Brahms: Piano Quintet in F minor, op.34 — II. Andante, un poco adagio
- (Most of) The Concert on CD
|Venue, Date & Time||Tonhalle am See, Zurich, 2023-11-03 19:30h|
|Series / Title||Chamber Music Summit with Isabelle Faust, Anne Katharina Schreiber, Antoine Tamestit, Jean-Guihen Queyras, and Alexander Melnikov|
|Organizer||Hochuli Konzert AG|
|Reviews from related events||Concerts organized by Hochuli Konzert AG|
- Isabelle Faust (*1972, see also Wikipedia), violin
- Anne Katharina Schreiber, violin
- Antoine Tamestit (*1979, see also Wikipedia), viola
- Jean-Guihen Queyras (*1967, see also Wikipedia), cello
- Alexander Melnikov (*1973), fortepiano
Isabelle Faust surely is among the world’s most prominent string artists. In my blog, she is one of a very small group of violinists who have consistently received the highest possible ratings, be it in concert reviews (4 so far), or in media reviews and comparisons (25 so far!). Isabelle Faust performs on the 1704 violin “La belle au bois dormant” (“Dornröschen“, “Sleeping beauty”) by Antonio Stradivari (1644 – 1737), Cremona.
Anne Katharina Schreiber
Unlike the other artists in this concert, Anne Katharina Schreiber’s name does not appear as frequently in concert and recording announcements. Nevertheless, she has contributed to countless concerts and recordings. She studied in Freiburg, with Rainer Kussmaul (1946 – 2017), and in 1988 she became a founding member of the Freiburger Barockorchester (see also Wikipedia)—an ensemble that she has performed in ever since. Besides that, Anne Katharina Schreiber has been covering a wide range of repertoire with prominent European ensembles. These include the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, the Kammerorchester Basel, the Collegium Vocale Gent. Anne Katharina Schreiber is teaching at the Hochschule für Musik in Freiburg and has also been active as chamber musician for over 2 decades.
This is one of Europe’s most prominent violists—whom I have encountered only once so far, in a concert on 2016-12-13 with the Trio Zimmermann, together with the violinist Frank Peter Zimmermann (*1965) and the Swiss cellist Christian Poltéra (*1977). Tamestit performed on a 1672 viola by Antonio Stradivari (1644 – 1737), Cremona.
I never witnessed Jean-Guihen Queyras in concert so far. Nevertheless, I consider him one of today’s top cellists. Consequently, he has been (and continues to do so) featuring in my blog in numerous media reviews. Jean-Guihen Queyras performs on a 1696 cello by Gioffredo Cappa (1644 – 1717), Saluzzo, Italy.
Finally, Alexander Melnikov: he has been a long-standing musical partnership with Isabelle Faust and Jean-Guihen Queyras. With the former, he has recorded the complete Beethoven Violin Sonatas, and with the latter the complete cello sonatas by the same composer. Altogether, he is one of the most frequently reviewed pianists in my blog. All these were media reviews. With one exception only, he always performed on modern concert grands. That’s a fact that I regretted since I got a taste for performances on period instruments.
However, Alexander Melnikov certainly is no stranger to historically informed performances. For instance, when he recorded with Isabelle Faust or with the Freiburger Barockorchester, he always was trying to find the composer’s original intent, rather than following established performance traditions. Moreover, it seems that now, Alexander Melnikov prefers using period instruments for the classic and romantic repertoire. He is currently recording the Mozart violin sonatas using a fortepiano, together with Isabelle Faust (3 out of 4 CDs are available so far).
In this concert, he was performing on an original, historic fortepiano from the workshop of Ignaz Pleyel (1757 – 1831). The instrument bears the number 14897 and was built in 1848. It is part of the instrument collection of Clavierwerkstatt Christoph Kern (Staufen im Breisgau, Germany).
- Schumann: String Quartet in A minor, op.41/1
- Schumann: Piano Quartet in E♭ major, op.47
- Schumann: Piano Quintet in E♭ major, op.44
The ensemble is touring through Europe with this program. This concert was the first one on their tour, which also served as presentation for the newly recorded CD featuring the works with (forte)piano, i.e., op.44 and op.47—see below for details.
Chamber music concerts often have problems gathering larger audiences. With these artists, however (not surprisingly), the big hall in the Tonhalle am See in Zurich was almost sold out—including the balconies. My seat was in row 16, near the center of the middle rear block, among the very best seats available.
Concert & Review
Schumann: String Quartet in A minor, op.41/1
- Introduzione: Andante espressivo — Allegro
- Scherzo: Presto — Intermezzo — Tempo I
- Allegro — Moderato — Tempo I
For details on the composition see my earlier concert review from 2018-09-09.
I. Introduzione: Andante espressivo —
First impressions. Some ensembles may see the Andante espressivo as anticipation of big things to come—drama, emotions. Here, however, the opening seemed all about atmosphere, mood. Despite the espressivo (which often is seen as invitation to use lots of vibrato), Isabelle Faust opened the piece in a gentle, soft, tender tone. The first seven bars (annotated just p) were serene, light—and almost without vibrato. Only with the appearance of crescendo and decrescendo forks in the score (first in the cello part) one could gradually feel the espressivo build up. But even in those early, brief eruptions, vibrato was rarely used as a means of expression—it remained inconspicuous (even in the punctuated stringendo transition to the Allegro), just helped shaping specific notes.
Right from the beginning, it was amazing to hear how well the instruments and musicians were matching up in all aspects—sonority / character, volume, articulation, agogics. Isabelle Faust’s name might suggest a lead role for the first violin. However, the artist always perfectly integrated herself into the ensemble. Transitions between the instruments were hardly noticeable at all: fabulous! In this opening, I sensed gentle pastel colors & mood, and a slight melancholy.
The Allegro naturally was more dramatic with its numerous accents and the lively dynamics. Vibrato assisted in highlighting peak notes and accents—but nothing ever felt overloaded or forced. The articulation remained clear and light, devoid of delayed accents, belly notes, let alone Nachdrücken. Transparency and clarity remained extraordinary throughout. The pace was relatively fluid, but there were never any signs of demonstrative virtuosity, of voices trumping up.
Not only the poignant accents stood out with their coherence and excellent coordination, but just as much the mf, p, and pp passages. The musicians devoted the same attention and care to the intermittent intimate moments.
II. Scherzo: Presto — Intermezzo — Tempo I
Fast, virtuosic—yet sleek: no uncontrolled outbursts, but keeping the dynamics in check, limiting the f and ff to moments where the score demands it. In an “immersive”, small venue setting, this movement might exhibit aspects of orchestral music. Paradoxically, in the big hall of the Tonhalle, the musicians were able to create an atmosphere of true chamber music. This was particularly evident in the Intermezzo with its subtle accents, the absence of hard contours.
In the dominant, soft segments, this was a prime example for peaceful, harmonious interaction between equal partners, full of touching moments. There was the calm, but intense, imitating dialog between the outer voices, the beautiful sonority of the inner voices, and in the marvelous descant cantilena in the cello prior to the expressive outburst of the middle part, adorned by Isabelle Faust’s discreet, ascending pizzicato figures.
I can’t resist mentioning this: in this slow movement, the advantages of minimal, very discreet vibrato were most apparent. Especially in the dramatic middle part, the musicians (and listeners!) endured the poignant dissonances. They resisted the temptation to soften or blur incisive intervals through vibration. Fascinating!
IV. Allegro — Moderato — Tempo I
Very fluid (without feeling pushed, though), virtuosic, but highly transparent, light, very agile in the dynamics and the accents. Technically and musically simply superb! Schumann gave every single voice plenty of opportunities to showcase its sonorous qualities. Isabelle Faust’s and Anne Katharina Schreiber’s violins were truly equal partners, Antoine Tamestit’s big Stradivari viola had no problem maintaining its presence within the ensemble. And it was ideally matching Jean-Guihen Queyras’ cello in volume, sonority, and character. The artists of course kept up drive and tension throughout the Allegro.
Then, there was the surprising turn into the Moderato. In the first part, this was a beautiful, tender musette. In the second part (pp), the ensemble lowered the volume to an “internalized” sotto voce, pensive, reflective, entirely without vibrato (beautiful!), then building up suspense towards the return of the Allegro (Tempo I).
Schumann: Piano Quartet in E♭ major, op.47
11 years ago, I have briefly mentioned a CD recording of Schumann’s op.47 (see my Listening Diary from 2012-11-01). I’ll mention this recording (which also happens to feature Alexander Melnikov at the piano) again below, as it also includes Schumann’s Piano Quintet op.44.
Already visually, the Pleyel fortepiano was a much better fit for the three string instruments (Isabelle Faust, Antoine Tamestit, Jean-Guihen Queyras) than a typical modern concert grand (a.k.a. “black monster”). Here, the lid (a double lid, actually) was fully open. With a modern grand, this automatically tilts the balance towards the (forte)piano. Here, it rather raised high(est) expectations towards a unified, historic / original, and well-balanced soundscape.
I. Sostenuto assai –
The above expectations were not exaggerated! In a conventional (modern) performance, the string instruments can hardly play p next to the piano’s “pp“. Here, however, Alexander Melnikov played a proper pp (if not even ppp), the strings stayed all sotto voce—and the balance was perfect! And even at this low volume, the fortepiano sonority never felt dull, dampened, or suffocated, but retained its clear, bright, and well-defined character.
– Allegro ma non troppo
With the Allegro ma non troppo, the piano clearly assumed the lead function. It was central to the soundscape, set the pace, and was driving the performance—without ever overpowering. I often felt that on a modern instrument, the arpeggio in the opening motif feels put-on. Here, however, the articulation suddenly made sense. At [A], in the repeated chord accompaniment (all p), the fortepiano was keeping up clarity and definition. At the same time, it left plenty of room for the string instruments to differentiate the dynamics in their melody lines.
Overall, compared to performances on modern instruments, the superb balance made the texture of the music sound more transparent, possibly also more complex—but at the same time also lighter, less compact. And those descending quaver figure chains on the fortepiano: so light, filigree, and colorful. True, a modern grand offers more power and volume in the bass. However, the fortepiano more than compensates this with the richness harmonics / colors.
Particularly with the motoric (forte)piano part and Alexander Melnikov’s persistently alert playing, this was an electrifying movement, filled of tension without the need for excess power: enthralling!
II. Scherzo: Molto vivace – Trio I – Trio II
Fast, scurrying along: virtuosic, ghastly almost, all pp, the staccato in the strings merging with the sound of the fortepiano. Agile, full of tension, even suspense.
Alexander Melnikov masterfully exposed the episodic nature of the first Trio. He made the music feel undecided, wavering between the crotchet-based Trio theme and two semiquaver-based Scherzo inserts. That Trio soon gave in to the return of the scurrying Scherzo.
The second Trio (p, dolce) appeared as a short episode of alternating chords in a faltering mood. That’s merely the theme, though. It soon gets “poisoned” by Scherzo elements and menacing undertones. Impending doom, which luckily dissolved resolved into the more playful return of the original Scherzo.
III. Andante cantabile
The third movement opens with a short, 3-bar violin solo above two resting chords. Isabelle Faust made this sound like a short, improvised cadenza. That was more than an opening, but also an excellent transition to the subsequent, beautiful cello cantilena in B♭ major. The latter is an endless melody, a Lied, really, which is then joined by the violin: variation I. In the second variation, the piano takes over again, maintaining rhythmic tension through a semiquaver shift between the two hands. The viola turns into the main accompanying voice, more in the background.
The next segment [C]—surprisingly in G♭ major, was of otherworldly beauty, warmth, and serenity, with the string instruments exchanging beautiful melody lines, and when the pianist took up the theme in the descant, its singing quality and vocal intensity seemed on a par with the string voices. After the modulation back to B♭ major (Tempo I), Antoine Tamestit took the center stage with the main cantilena, above sotto voce piano accompaniment, adorned by Isabelle Faust’s very discreet semiquaver garlands.
At [E], Isabelle Faust and Antoine Tamestit entered a beautiful, serene duet. Here, Alexandre Melnikov was able to keep his part (particularly the semiquavers in the right hand) entirely in the background, truly pp—without losing clarity. Qualities which surely are impossible to achieve on a modern grand. And: the artists never dropped the tension, throughout the movement.
IV. Finale: Vivace
The opening part of the Finale felt like a baroque fugato, with classic clarity and expressive dynamics. The movement retains a polyphonic texture with fugato elements: challenging not just because of the virtuosic parts, but also in the coordination, throughout the subtle rubato. The latter remained subtle, natural, often entirely inconspicuous.
One can briefly summarize the performance in last movement as brilliant, compelling, of utmost coherence, compelling—a masterwork just as much as Schumann’s composition. And: my notes from the event state: “Sorry, pianists: on modern concert grands you don’t stand a chance to compete with performances on period instruments from Schumann’s time!” (or their replicas, I should add).
Schumann: Piano Quintet in E♭ major, op.44
- Allegro brillante
- In Modo d’una Marcia: Un poco largamente – Agitato
- Scherzo: Molto vivace – Trio I & II
- Allegro, ma non troppo
The second part of the concert was devoted to Schumann’s op.44, which some might call a “romantic hit piece”, now involving all five musicians:
I. Allegro brillante
Allegro brillante, not Allegro risoluto: the main theme felt brilliant, festive, sonorous, expressive, rhapsodic—but certainly not excessively resolute or staccato, let alone harsh. After all, there is no reason to “shoot the powder too soon”! Not surprisingly, the fortepiano was able to keep up with the volume of the strings—but it never dominated inappropriately. However, it revealed its true qualities in the elegiac second theme: singing, melodious. And Alexander Melnikov masterfully applied expressive agogics, formed harmonious transitions / rubato.
The fortepiano also introduced the melodious third theme, which then led to a, intense dialog between cello and viola. Here, the two instruments appeared to compete for the most beautiful tone. There was no winner, though—both instruments ideally complemented each other in character and sonority / color.
The development part switches to a dramatic, earnest tone. And here, Alexander Melnikov (actually: Clara Schumann-Wieck!) had the clear lead role, driving the performance: a challenging, highly emote, expressive part, indeed! Clara Schumann was one of the leading pianists of her time, after all!
II. In Modo d’una Marcia: Un poco largamente –
The Un poco largamente (split time / Alla breve, 1/2 = 66), was fluid—unusually fluid. It was a tad faster than Schumann’s metronome mark, and often momentarily even accelerating above the initial pace (e.g., towards climaxes). It took me a moment to adjust to that pace. However, after a few bars, it nevertheless felt “right”—especially considering the light, agile character of the fortepiano.
For the gentle middle part (espressivo, ma sempre p), the artists switched to a calmer pace—serene, peaceful, like distant / remote memories. To those who believe the fortepiano lacks bass power: Alexander Melnikov’s low bass octaves not only had plenty of volume, but also color, character: beautiful! The initial pace of course returned with the opening theme, but now led into a ritardando towards the Agitato. That transition was filled with suspense and expectation—but without excess drama.
In the Agitato, the artists exposed the unruly, if not rebelling character of the music. Alexander Melnikov was the driver here. He even appeared to push the pace, creating an irresistible pull forward—enthralling! After the climax in this f/ff segment, the piano retracts into a quaver triplet accompaniment. However, together with the constant, rapid tremolo in the second violin, the Agitato character persisted. Into this, Antoine Tamestit’s viola monologue felt dark, impressively characterful, dramatic—but neither tragic not sad, as in some interpretations. It was interesting to observe how in the second instance the switch to the d’ and a’ strings altered the sonority. It was almost like the change from a male to a female voice: the richness of the viola!
With the A tempo and the modulation from F minor to F major, the movement mutated into a transfigured mood. Isabelle Faust’s serene melody on the e” string—discreetly complemented by Jean-Guihen Queyras’ cello voice—sounded like a soothing comment from a world beyond. The final return of the initial march-like theme was a mere reminiscence, gradually retracting to pp, closing with a vibrato-less string chord in the finest-possible pppp. Beautiful!
III. Scherzo: Molto vivace – Trio I & II
In the Scherzo, Alexander Melnikov again was in the lead function, in a constant dialog with Isabelle Faust. The music sounded light (not the least thanks to the fortepiano), effortless, almost playful. At the same time, Alexander Melnikov also proved that the fortepiano can produce astounding volume and power. Enthralling, for sure. The first Trio offered contrast, while the second Trio was a closer match to the character of the Scherzo. Remarkable: the mutual coordination, the precision with which Anne Katharina Schreiber’s and Antoine Tamestit’s pizzicato interjections were fitting into the filigree semiquaver stream.
IV. Allegro, ma non troppo
The final movement followed quasi attacca. Especially the heavily modulating middle part demonstrated the ensemble’s diligent use of rubato and agogics. After an implicit fermata, the viola’s marcato motif starts at a slower pace, and the music began to accelerate gradually, reaching the original tempo only with the return of the main theme.
Schumann and the artists made the audience believe the movement was moving towards a Coda. However, after an ingenious, but seamless transition to p, the fortepiano launched a fugato. One could not feel any drop in drive and momentum. Rather, the performance relentlessly and consequently built up to a first climax. After subsequent climactic waves, the artists incessantly drove the masterwork to its brilliant, splendid ending.
Encore — Brahms: Piano Quintet in F minor, op.34 — II. Andante, un poco adagio
The choice of encore was “almost obvious”: it should be a piano quintet, for sure, in order to involve all five musicians—and hence a quintet for piano and string quartet (works with double bass don’t fit the bill). And it should be a romantic work that suits the repertoire in the concert. Schumann wrote just one such work—his op.44. There are only few works that fill these requirements, especially if the selection is limited to Schumann’s “circle”. Luckily, there’s an obvious solution:
In summer 1864, Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897) completed his Piano Quintet in F minor, op.34 (1864). This composition not only uses the same instrumentation, but it also—albeit undeniably typical Brahms—is close enough in style. Indeed, the slow second movement, Andante, un poco adagio, felt like the ideal piece to close this concert!
Interestingly, in concerts over the past 12 years, I have encountered Brahms’ Piano Quintet just once. And that performance wasn’t exactly memorable…
A dreamy, intimate work in warm, blossoming harmonies, with beautiful melodies, both wistful and serene moments, memories emerging and fading away in waves. A Notturno of sorts—and one of the most beautiful of its kind: I can hardly think of a better, more harmonious, more fitting closure to the concert!
I resisted rating individual works, let alone movements. The entire performance was remarkable, exceptional, outstanding, stellar in every aspect. A concert to take home: a recording of two of the three works in the program is about to become available:
(Most of) The Concert on CD
As mentioned above, the concert tour, which started with that evening also served as presentation for the ensemble’s very recent recording featuring two of the three works in this concert:
Schumann: Piano Quintet op.44; Piano Quartet op.47
Isabelle Faust, Anne Katharina Schreiber, Antoine Tamestit, Jean-Guihen Queyras, Alexander Melnikov
Harmonia Mundi (CD stereo, ℗ / © 2023)
Officially released on 2023-11-24
Given that the concert is tightly associated with the performance in the concerts in the ensemble’s current tour, I will not create a separate media review. I regard the performance in this concert as being representative for the (anticipated) CD recording. It is highly unlikely that the recording technician has in any way diminished or affected the musical qualities of the performance. Rather, for most of the listeners in the concert audience, the CD will offer more detail and a more immersive experience. Even prior to having access to the CD, I dare giving a strong recommendation for this recording!
A Competitive Recording?
Interestingly, Alexander Melnikov has recorded these very same works already 11 years ago—then on a modern concert grand. This was with the Jerusalem Quartet (Alexander Pavlovsky, Sergei Bresler, Ori Kam, Kyril Zlotnikov)—and for the same label:
Schumann: Piano Quintet op.44; Piano Quartet op.47
Jerusalem Quartet, Alexander Melnikov
Harmonia mundi France, HMC 902122 (CD, stereo); ℗ 2012
I have briefly touched upon this older recording in one of my early blog posts on 2012-11-01. I’m not doing a comparison here, as the newest recording is yet to become publicly available. However, despite the very high qualities and standards of the Jerusalem Quartet, it doesn’t take much guessing to predict that I will prefer the newer recording by far.
The author would like to express his gratitude to the organizer, Hochuli Konzert AG, for the press tickets to this concert, and for allowing me to use photos from the event (© Quim Vilar, email@example.com).