This hour-long morning concert by the Frith Piano Quartet featured two works written by youthful composers, sharing the key of B minor and both portents of the promise shown by their authors.
Belgian composer Guillaume Lekeu (1870-1894) remains the preserve of chamber music aficionados rather than being a household name, but there is no doubting that his music merits far wider appreciation. Of course, his premature death at the age of twenty-four ensured that the rich melodic gifts failed to reach their full maturity, but the most assured of his works point the way to a composer who wore his heart on his sleeve, which lends his music an appealing honesty. The Piano Quartet of 1893 is one of these works, even though it was left incomplete in two movements by Lekeu and the score was “touched up” by Vincent d’Indy in order to render it performable.
The first movement was gripping from its opening statements, the Frith Piano Quartet seizing upon the arresting nature of Lekeu’s grand initial tutti gesture which comes across almost as a paragraph begun part way through. The quartet’s phrasing was by turns imposing and pliant when needed with Benjamin Frith’s piano playing proving a near ideal foil to the exchanges of material brought to exciting and involving reality by the well-matched trio of Robert Heard, violin, Louise Williams, viola, and Richard Jenkinson, cello. The Frith Piano Quartet created an atmosphere of heady ebullience that was totally at one with the tone and tenor of Lekeu’s forthrightly scored music and they crowned the movement with playing of magnificent verve. The succeeding movement provided much in the way of contrast, its mood being darker and more inward looking with the interplay of instrumental voices being held back to suit the more subdued mood. There was a spaciousness to the Friths’ articulation of their parts, with the strings often in stark contrast to chords of the piano accompaniment. If a feeling of melancholia had pervaded the movement, the ending provided more of a question mark than a full stop with the cello’s slightly accentuated pizzicato final notes which seemed to ask both players and audience which might have followed if only Lekeu had lived to complete the piece. This certainly whetted my desire to hear more Lekeu whenever possible in the concert hall and the Frith Piano Quartet should be congratulated on their sterling advocacy of this unjustly neglected composer.
Felix Mendelssohn, on the other hand, needs no introduction or special case to be made for him, yet it is still remarkable how fresh and alive even a piece of juvenilia such as his Piano Quartet no. 3, opus 3, written at the tender age of 16 can be made to sound. So much so that the Frith’s playing of the opening movement Allegro molto brought out with ease that this was music that carried the assurance and daring of youth in its every phrase, ranging as it did from moments of serenity to tempest-tossed exuberance, with the turns of tempo being adroitly and sensitively handled. The second movement Andante was possessed of an elegance that owed much to the careful maintenance of an even dynamic range throughout. The third movement was justifiably yearning and questing in its thematic material, with a sense of continual movement and investigation easily captured. Here perhaps at times the violin proved momentarily a dominating element with its hard-edged tone, but in the closing movement the Frith Piano Quartet found unity of purpose and driving impetus to see their interpretation home, taking time along the way to integrate Mendelssohn’s delicately dancing passagework for each instrument neatly and pleasingly into the whole.
Further details of Wigmore Hall concerts can be found at wigmore-hall.org.uk.