An all-Schumann chamber music concert doesn’t come around that often, even at the Wigmore Hall, so I was delighted that the Modigliani Quartet – whom I had previously only heard in French repertoire – presented a meaty programme of three of his major chamber works together with the young Italian pianist Beatrice Rana. All three works were composed in 1842, his “Year of Chamber Music”, and listening to these works in one sitting, one could not but marvel at Schumann’s productivity and invention in this genre in one year (he also composed the two other string quartets of Op.41). Having married his beloved Clara two years earlier, he had his muse constantly by his side and one can feel a sense of stability and positive energy, as well as a wealth of inspiration in the music.

Beatrice Rana © Neda Navaee
Beatrice Rana
© Neda Navaee
The Modigliani Quartet began the programme on their own with the A major String Quartet in which Schumann takes Beethoven as his model in terms of formal structure and motivic development, but combines that with his distinctive harmony that is full of Romantic yearning. For example, the persistent use of the falling fifth motif in the first movement is accompanied by imaginative harmonic progession in a very different way from Beethoven. The players performed with warm expressivity and energy but without ever digging into the strings too strongly, thereby producing a beautifully balanced and blended sonority (in this work their seating order was Vn I/Vn II/Va/Vc from left to right). The first violin and viola in particular had some intimate duetting moments together (played by Philippe Bernhard and Laurent Marfaing respectively), notably in one of the variations in the second movement, which made me wonder whether Schumann imagined himself as the viola and the first violin as Clara.

Conversely, the best duet in the E flat major Piano Quartet is between the piano and cello in the gorgeous third movement. The Piano Quartet has never been as popular as the more flamboyant Piano Quintet (also in the same key), but it is more intimate and delicate and I have always had a soft spot for it. Interestingly, it was first violinist Philippe Bernhard who took a break in this piece, and second violinist Loïc Rio stepped up to lead the ensemble. They also changed the seating and placed the cello in the middle (Vn/Vc/Va from left to right) probably for balance reasons, though I wasn’t so sure it was an improvement.

22-year-old Beatrice Rana is a pianist I’ve been hearing good things about since she came into the limelight becoming a prizewinner at the Cliburn Competition in 2013, and recently she has joined the prestigious BBC New Generation Artists Scheme, so no doubt we will hear more of her. From my first encounter, she is a serious-minded and unassuming performer and wears her technical skills lightly. I don’t know how much experience she has had in chamber music but performing with such an accomplished quartet will surely be invaluable to her. Unsurprisingly, at first she seemed a little apprehensive and tense. Technically she is very assured but the piano part in this quartet is not as soloistic as the Piano Quintet, and in the first movement it felt like she was being very faithful to the score but not much more. She showed warmth and sensitivity in duetting with the cellist François Kieffer in the aforementioned third movement, but it was in the Vivace finale that she stepped up a gear, playing with more determination and energy and teaming up with her colleagues to create a thrilling climax.

After the interval, Bernhard resumed his place as first violinist in the Piano Quintet. This work is filled with positive energy, especially in the lively outer movements, and it shows Schumann at his most exuberant and joyous. Rana seemed more at ease in this work too, taking initiative in her soloistic passages. It is certainly more virtuosic for the piano – one may say that whereas the piano quartet is written for four equal parts, the piano quintet is more piano versus string quartet. Indeed, there were times when Rana’s delicate playing was a little overpowered by the powerful string ensemble (especially in the finale). But overall, Rana and the members of the Modigliani played sonorously and with finesse, bringing out the contrasting characters of the sections within a movement, and each player shaping their solos beautifully. After such an uplifting performance, it seemed a shame that the audience seemed to be in a hurry to get home, presumably to prepare for New Year. They definitely deserved more applause.

****1