January is a gloomy time, and it felt apt that the Hermès Quartet, along with Pavel Kolesnikov and violinist Elīna Buksha, should offer us a programme of mystery and melancholy in the chamber version of Chopin’s Piano Concerto no. 2 in F minor and Ernest Chausson Concert in D major for violin, piano and string quartet

Pavel Kolesnikov
© Eva Vermandel

Entrepreneurial publishers had been keen to find new markets for piano concertos by reducing their forces to a more manageable domestic scale since Hummel stripped back Mozart in the 1820s and 30s. Enthusiastic 19th-century arranger Karl Klindworth turned his hand to Chopin’s two piano concertos too, offering up pint-sized versions with string quartet replacing orchestra. Chopin’s gawky handling of his orchestral forces has not always been remarked upon graciously by critics, though his relative disinterest in the tutti forces does allow his dazzling piano writing to shine. 

In this chamber version, we are saved from Chopin’s occasional clangers – which we might generously chalk up to convention and youthful inexperience – and graced with something a little simpler and more intimately expressive, with somewhat greater scope for dialogue between soloist and accompaniment, although there isn’t always much for the strings to go on, particularly in the first movement, where they mainly hold the door open for melismatic and rapturous piano entries. The Hermès Quartet brought responsive colours and texture, and had clearly listened for the most opportune musical moments to cast light or thicken darkly throughout the concerto. 

But the piano writing does glitter and glow, particularly in Kolesnikov’s forbearing hands, who brought a sinuous intensity to music that only really starts to take off when the piano enters. He has an unforced legato that is suggestive of a keen musical intelligence, but never one that becomes academic or essayistic. The second movement, a doleful Larghetto, was dreamy stuff, whose glassy cascades were dispatched effortlessly by Kolesnikov, and supported by thoughtful dynamics from Hermès. Anthony Kondo’s cello offered an able lyrical counterpart to the somnambulant wanderings of the piano's right hand. 

The great Martha Argerich felt that Chopin’s virtuosity should feel understated and Kolesnikov, throughout the concerto, manifested a studied carelessness that sharpened the emotional piquancy of the work. The last movement, with its more rambunctious Mazurka-like sections, gave us more of his artful sprezzatura, choosing to be coy and fleet-footed in his unravelling of the music’s chromatic enigmas.  

Chausson’s Concert in D major is one of his few pieces regularly programmed, alongside the Poème for violin. Like the latter work it was conceived for the towering violinistic talent of Eugene Ysaÿe. It’s a piece that casts one eye toward the concerto grosso, with quartet as ripieno supporting Kolesnikov’s piano and the solo violin of Elīna Buksha. It also adopts a four-movement structure with oblique nods to Baroque dance forms: a Siciliene second movement and a Grave third movement whose triple meter hints at a Sarabande, even if its chromatic suspensions are torturously Wagnerian. 

There are hints of Debussy in Chausson’s sound; the latter was a keen supporter of Claude, though Chausson’s writing is more gestural and lithe than prone, like Debussy’s, to find itself entranced by its textures for their own sake. This was a robust performance, taut and vigorous from the spare tensile opening bars, with its unison strings, answered decisively by Kolesnikov and Bushka. There are more opportunities here than in the Chopin for dialogue, and the inner parts – Elise Liu’s violin and Yung-Hsin Lou Chang’s viola – had a numinous glow.

The violin writing throughout is less ostentatiously showy than, say the Poème, or Ysaÿe’s own famously finger-shredding sonatas, but the lyrical opportunities are plentiful, with Buksha wasting none; her melancholy sojourns to the upper reaches of her instrument’s A string were especially gorgeous. She clearly took the Baroque flavours of the piece to heart, preferring a restrained and ornamental vibrato in the two inner movements to sugary late-Romantic wobbling; this was particularly effective in the spare duet between her and Kolesnikov that opened the Grave.

It’s a stylistically varied piece demanding great versatility from musicians, with the second movement hinting at Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin, or even Vaughan Williams, before breaking into soaring lyrical flight straight out of César Franck’s style guide. Likewise, the Grave had a searching character, made all the more mysterious by the bell-like sonorities from the bottom of Kolesnikov’s piano, before a florid chromatic breakdown towards the climax. The final movement plays rhythmic games with its alternating triple- and duple-meters, building to a fever-pitch of excitement whose trills and fast bows couldn’t help but remind one of Tannhäuser. The audience were evidently beguiled: our goodnight lullaby was a reprise of movement two, hushed and enchanting.