THE ROYAL STRING QUARTET with ALESSANDRO TAVERNA
SATURDAY 19th NOVEMBER 2011
A Right Royal Treat
The Royal String Quartet of Warsaw have become regular and welcome visitors to Nairn, and it is perhaps their familiarity with their audience that emboldened them to provide us with a particularly challenging first half to an all-Polish programme on Saturday evening. If Henryk Gorecki's first Quartet op. 62, subtitled 'already it is dusk', is a representation of sleep, then it is a singularly unsettling one. It begins with a Polish folk lullaby played by the viola but already undermined by a dissonant commentary from the other instruments. When sleep descends it is definitely of the REM variety as a manic Polish dance of extraordinary ferocity evokes night terrors of a truly horrifying nature. A serene conclusion fails to lay to rest the obsessive demons which have been evoked in this disturbing work. A stunning performance by the Quartet ensured that, love it or hate it, the audience was both stimulated and engaged by this percussive and startling piece.
Standing as a book-end at the other end of the first half, we heard the second Quartet by another leading light of Polish twentieth-century composition, Karol Szymanowski, a composer influenced by composers to the east and west of him. The opening episode belonged to the very French milieu of Debussy and Ravel, but very soon the more exotic flavours of Bartok and Scriabin became more evident. Again a masterly performance by the Royal String Quartet, finely detailed and superbly unanimous, made a powerful case for the superlative quality and overwhelming musicality of this late work.
Sandwiched between these acerbic works of twentieth-century composition, we heard two beautifully romantic piano pieces by Frederick Chopin, introducing the considerable pianistic skills of Venetian piano virtuoso Alessandro Taverna. His reading of the C-sharp minor Valse op. 64 no. 2 was beautifully paced and languidly elegant, while the less familiar Eb-major Rondo op. 16 provided ample opportunity for technical display. If the contrast between the Romantic and modern aspects of the first half was perhaps a little extreme for comfort, it was fascinating to hear separately the two elements which would unite so effectively in the second half.
The highly unusual treat which awaited us in the second half was a performance of Chopin's E-minor Piano Concerto, with the orchestral score reduced for string quartet. No great orchestrator, Chopin may even have originally conceived his Concerto for these forces, but this is no chamber music. It is a fully-fledged Concerto relying on contrasting passages for soloist and strings, conceived on a large scale and harbouring at its heart the most exquisite Romance movement. Dashing playing from Alessandro Taverna held the spotlight and he was ably supported by the Quartet, clearly enjoying their role as orchestral collaborators. This was a performance with great panache and drama, and if fleetingly in the opening episode and at the end of the Finale I felt the need for the weight and impact of a full orchestra, the yearning soon passed and the lasting impression was extremely positive.
Alessandro Taverna sent the audience home with a waltz ringing in their ears with a stunning performance of a showy arrangement by the Hungarian composer/virtuoso Erno Dohnanyi of the Schatz Waltz op 418 by Johann Strauss.
D James Ross