The chamber music of Schubert and Mendelssohn is among the finest in the repertoire.
With ‘cellist Oleg Kogan and friends on hand to perform two of the composers’ greatest works for the genre, it was almost guaranteed that a sublime display of music-making was in the offing.
An evening with the Rasumovsky Ensemble is, by this chamber group’s very nature, bound to be somewhat unpredictable.
Far from defaulting to a regimented selection of musicians, the performers are hand-picked by Kogan for each concert. This is a very exciting concept, as each performance produces a new blend of musical characters which, in turn, is imparted upon the music.
However, there is also the danger that blend may be replaced by imbalance, caused by a clash of ideas which subsequently detracts from the oneness that is so vital to chamber music. Such a conflict threatened the opening movement of Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” Quartet, during which first violinist Vasko Vassilev often seemed on a different musical wavelength from his three playing partners. Though there is no doubting his qualities and his credentials, Vassilev seemed intent on grabbing Schubert’s work by the scruff of the neck, seeking to shape his own original reading, while the rest of the ensemble was content to take a step back, allowing the composer’s score to speak largely for itself. The first movement’s second subject was a prime example of this divergence. While the other three performers brought out the music’s poetic quality, Vassilev produced an account of high intensity that failed to match.
However, this was only one movement in a concert of eight and, thankfully, it was the only time that any eyebrows could be raised regarding the musicians’ intentions. The quartet brilliantly captured the solemnity of the Andante con moto, the melody of which gives the work its nickname. Tenderness and lyricism were in abundance as the ensemble created a breathtaking soundworld that had the Wigmore audience spellbound. This sensitivity then gave way to the rhythmic vitality of the final two movements, which were played with overwhelming flair and gusto. Particularly convincing was the Presto finale, from its deathly, lontano beginnings to its rambunctious and riotous close.
Though all the musicians contributed greatly to this performance, the star of the first half had to be the “motor room” of the quartet that is, second violinist David Alberman and violist Krzysztof Chorzelsky. They were a delight both to watch and to listen to, constantly communicating with one another to ensure that their moto perpetuo accompaniments were not merely together but also expressive and riveting.
After the interval, the “motor” was replaced with a new engine pianist Ronan O’Hora in preparation for a rendition of Mendelssohn’s D-minor Piano Trio. And what a fine rendition it was. This magnificent work, with melodies worthy of Schubert and a level of concentration often found in Beethoven, was given a performance that more than justified its standing as one of the composer’s finest examples of chamber music. O’Hora was unfazed by the copious number of notes Mendelssohn provided for him. Though a greater clarity and dare I say dynamic level may have been desirable during some of the dazzling virtuoso accompanimental passages, O’Hora supplied a solid and unwavering foundation over which Vassilev and Kogan could deliver their sublime melodic lines.
Indeed, the many lyrical passages for violin and ‘cello in this work were phrased with the utmost care and delicacy. This was apparent from the very beginning, when the dark and mysterious opening for Kogan’s ‘cello was deftly continued by the Vassilev’s violin. The second subject was then exquisitely shaped by all three players as they passed it to one another, creating an aura of wonder and tranquillity. The piano was not without its own moments of melody. The beginning of the second movement, scored for solo piano, was played by O’Hora with the warmth and commitment one might expect to hear in the performance of a piano sonata. While a bristling performance Finale evoked rapturous applause, the account of the Scherzo a medium in which Mendelssohn was particularly adept was especially thrilling. This was not merely because the notes were played at an astonishing pace and with a captivating accuracy, but also because the three musicians were all intent on instilling a real sense of fun and excitement. Their attitude certainly rubbed off on the audience, as the cheeky, mischievous ending garnered much audible humour from the Wigmore Hall patrons.
The Rasumovsky Ensemble’s next visit to Wigmore Street is in January 2007. If the musicianship in this concert is anything to go by, then it should be a real treat, and is not to be missed on any account.