Is it presumptuous to call a piano quartet a harmonic convergence of four different flavours? Maybe not. Playing piano quartets requires much more than a dutiful exercise. Without the four versus one dualism of quintet, nor the equilibrium of piano trio, striking a balance is a real challenge. Yesterday’s all-Romantic programme displaced the usual thing with incredible panache, as Daniel Hope’s violin surveyed the ensemble with regal bearing, inviting us to sit back and enjoy the ride.

"The Piano Quartet" : Daniel Hope, Paul Neubauer, Wu Han and David Finckel © Tristan Cook
"The Piano Quartet" : Daniel Hope, Paul Neubauer, Wu Han and David Finckel
© Tristan Cook

First up was Mahler's Piano Quartet in A minor, captioned “Nicht zu schnell», not too fast. On the surface, you're listening to a wholehearted one-movement piece that lasts a not-so-Mahlerian 12 minutes or so, and which ought to be the heir to a chamber music tradition whose immediate predecessor is Brahms, or even Bruckner. German Romanticism in a petite package. Despite some mannerism in voice leading, the Mahler was finely played: rhythm was in a state of limbo, yet excellent harmonic awareness allowed to keep up appearances. Wu Han provided subtle backing, though she did not quite have the punch necessary to match Hope’s devilish appeal – his cadenza tumbled out with bite.

Much the same could be said of the Sostenuto assai that led into Schumann’s Piano Quartet in E flat major. Hope’s penchant for magnification and overstated contrasts added contours, while the three other musicians gave the sound a more expressive glow. A concerted approach and constant eye-contact were the means by which the quartet made it to the end of the Scherzo, striving to keep it tidy. Yet the piano octave line sounded rather shallow, sometimes rhythmically at odds with the rest of quartet. The Andante wore a heady mixture of wonderful vibratos, yet gave a great deal of room to Paul Neubauer, whose viola was sheer poetry: deeply moving Dvořákian warmth. The singing line, which had sounded so patchy in the Scherzo, was here unbroken.

Part of the success of the evening came in Brahms' Piano Quartet in G minor. There are few movements as viscerally exciting as its Rondo all Zingarese finale. The lushness of Brahms' writing was present here in the Sostenuto assai: pounding unisons kept coming in unforgiving quantities. Quite a feat in a single movement. In the Intermezzo, violin and viola connived to offer a superb two-headed cantabile which was sheer beauty. The Andante con moto entered promisingly, with some gorgeous playing. Ever-shifting harmonies remained remarkably clear, as David Finckel provided a superb well-knit bassline. The Animato showed great poise: whilst Neubauer stormed out with blunt force, Hope sent sonic shockwaves and Han’s left hand threw in extra ballast.

Everyone spruced up for the Rondo all Zingarese: 20 pages, fraught with tricky passages and raunchy rubatos. Hope called the tune with a provocative stance, yet with impressive pitch accuracy. Mercifully, Han managed to ghost through the semiquavers, indulging in some tenderness before catching up with L’istesso tempo. In the meantime, Finckel looked like a 19th-century Italian nobleman caught in the midst of war, trying by any means to quell the upheaval. Still, he showed great buoyancy in tuttis. Piano accompaniment was fickle and panted for breath until the final escalation of tempo where it literally went wild. Certainly not the most flawless performance of the piece I’ve ever heard, but undoubtedly one of the most thrilling.

At last, Neubauer treated us to some Hungarian fiddling… which was probably intended to show off the expressiveness and sultry charm of his otherwise discreet instrument. But one joke is enough for an encore and the second farce, American Vision by Georges Boulanger, felt redundant.

****1