The husband and wife team of acclaimed concert violinist Lisa Batiashvili and solo oboist François Leleux forms the backbone of this as-yet-unnamed chamber group, which performs as often as busy individual schedules permit. For some the main draw of an ensemble of like this might be hearing the music buffeted around by strong personalities. But, not entirely unpredictably, the self-assertion typical of many a concerto performance was not to be found, and indeed was scrupulously avoided. If at times the reined-in discipline appeared to be overcompensating a little – many of the best full-time string quartets around, after all, are not known for holding back – there was a cohesion to the sound, and even a distinct ensemble identity, which didn’t compare too shabbily to more seasoned chamber groups.
The unity of purpose and vigour of combined effort, though impressive, did not however find itself underpinned by many far-reaching interpretive decisions in the two Mozart quartets. Both works were characterized by a certain muscularity of attack followed through with a poised sensibility, and while the elusive blending of strength and refinement might well be considered optimal for the composer, with things like recapitulations indistinguishable from expositions it soon came to seem less responsive to the notes than simply homogenizing. François Leleux’s oboe tone – a mellow warble at the bottom and plaintively spun thread at the top – proved well-suited to the solo part of the second quartet (K285, originally written for flute), its lament/serenade hybrid of a slow movement providing an occasion for shaping to emerge from the phrases on the page, rather than to project merely as a string of conventional gestures. The three string players accompanied sensitively here, but it was the only movement in either work which didn’t seem to flatten the music. One can hear the conversational quality of Mozart’s chamber music all too easily descend into something clipped, piped, or lunged at callowly, depending on the style of playing, but one thing these performances have which this one lacked is some sense of being discursively active.
It pleases me to report more positively about the rest of the concert. Britten’s Phantasy, his Op. 2, registered as something forlorn and ruminative with a bleak centre never quite spelled out; quite dark for juvenilia, but then much of Britten’s early work is (in this performance the work certainly seemed of a piece with Britten’s Op. 8 song cycle Our Hunting Fathers).
French composer Nicolas Bacri is a figure I must confess to having known very little about before this concert, but as the programme note for his Partita da Camera helpfully made clear, his critical stance towards postwar modernism and preference for a tonal idiom has led to excommunication from an IRCAM-oriented new music scene which brooks no dissent, though there is a difference between turning one’s back on a style and being silenced by its adherents, and the successful career Bacri has made for himself would appear to belie claims of the latter. Maybe it is grinding another high-modernist axe to identify the Partita da Camera for what it is, which would be something like an attempt to write Shostakovich’s 16th string quartet, though if one is inclined to accept the postmodernist position that music is all ‘used up’ then such a kind of speculative project will possibly have some appeal.
Unfortunately, judged on its own terms – or rather Shostakovich’s – it is rather a pale imitation: the outer movements are monothematic to the point of minimalism and yet in the first movement there is a quixotic attempt at sonata form; the slow movement is a classic Shostakovich scherzo and has the required spikiness to the writing but no sardonic edge; and the slow movement is characterized by portentous major-minor juxtapositions lifted from the Soviet composer’s Fifth Symphony (less prominent here is some of the work’s more inspired melodic material). I shouldn’t pigeonhole Alfred Schnittke, but this is territory which he covered in numerously more creative ways, and throughout the Bacri performance thoughts of Schnittke’s 1985 String Trio, sparsely sketched for him, lingered in the mind. That Bacri had written his work for François Leleux was evident enough, but despite another strong contribution here – Lawrence Power’s viola solo in the slow movement was quite something – I was not won over by the piece.
Little space is left to discuss Dohnányi’s Serenade for string trio, which I had expected to be something full of Brahmsian exuberance along the lines of his first Piano Quintet (also in C major), but turned out to be considerably more Slavic in character. In response the ensemble spared no conceivable styling, from Lawrence Power’s hurdy gurdy drone to Lisa Batiashvili’s flourishes and boot-stomping rhythms.
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