For a concert lasting only an hour, the programme was certainly eclectic. It marked a trajectory from lightness to desolation with a playful piano sonata by Mozart, Mahler’s only surviving but still monumental chamber work, and Richard Strauss’ lament for a crumbling Europe at the end of World War Two.

Louis Schwizgebel © Edward Ching
Louis Schwizgebel
© Edward Ching

Yet it was the lighter side that was treated most sensitively. Given the two heavy-weight works by Mahler and Strauss that were to follow, there was a danger that Mozart’s Piano Sonata in D major would become superfluous, an irrelevant introduction. However, pianist Louis Schwizegebel refused to let this happen. Though a heavy Steinway Concert Grand was unsuitable for this piece’s delicacy, Schwizegebel largely succeeded in coaxing grace from this ungainly instrument. There were moments in the slow movement that were a tad too heavy; when the piano’s percussive nature came through. Yet at other times, Schwizegebel’s understanding of the subtlety required was astounding. He offered contrast but without exaggeration. He could be fiery whilst remaining refined. Here was a performer who relished playing with expectations, unafraid of lingering for just a moment longer before the next phrase, leaving enough time for the audience to ask: where will he take us next?

Schwizegebel joined members of the Royal Quartet for Mahler’s Piano Quartet in A minor. An early work of the composer’s, it was meant to be the first movement of a piano quartet that was never completed. Though it survives as a single movement, it foreshadows the monumental symphonies that were to come. This is made clear from the outset, with a deep and resonant piano introduction that states the opening melody, sorrowfully answered by the strings.

Schwizegebel and the Royal Quartet began at a fairly fast pace. This allowed violinist Izabella Szałaj-Zimak to soar, but it meant that the work lost some of its heavy monumentality. However, it produced a feeling of transience, making it sound more like the first movement of an unfinished work, and led to an eerily unresolved close. Despite its brisk speed, the excellent ensemble playing made for a captivating performance. Szałaj-Zimak skilfully led the ensemble, knowing when to listen as well as when to shine. 

Given the context surrounding Strauss’ Metamorphosen – presented here in its arrangement for string septet ­– one would expect a profound performance. Written in 1945, some regard it as Strauss’ elegy for the destruction of Munich. Others believe that it explores the cause of war itself, which stems from humanity’s bestial nature. Either way, the work is bleak. Strauss was unable to attend the work’s première, finding it too emotional. And the quotation of the funeral march from the second movement of Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ Symphony is haunting and painful.

Nevertheless, it is a difficult work to pull off, and the Royal Quartet – joined by double bassist Tomasz Januchta, violist Katarzyna Budnik, and cellist Marcin Zdunik – were only partially successful. Their combined string sound was luxurious whilst also producing an underlying unnerving quality. The players always listened to each other, providing a cushion for individual solo lines that needed to come through. Zdunik’s cello voice was especially moving when he came through with a melancholy sigh. The repeated notes that Strauss passes between the players were played with a pleading urgency. As the work progressed they became increasingly frantic, begging for a culmination that was never given. By the time the work drew to its close, these repeated notes were jagged and stuck out sorely. 

However, this performance was not always engaging. It is a long work for a single string texture, and requires a considered treatment to avoid becoming monotonous. The piece begins and ends with extensive slow sections that need concentrated playing to avoid become aimless. Yet the ensemble sometimes got lost in their luxurious sound and they risked becoming directionless. They could have exploited the possibilities offered by this more intimate chamber arrangement, exploring how different voices might be brought out, how parts might interact, and how it might be phrased to give the work more shape. They did little to draw attention to certain subtleties, resulting in a constant and shapeless wall of sound.

Strauss’ Metamorphosen has been described as “possibly the saddest piece of music ever written” but in this concert it was outshone by a far subtler treatment of Mozart’s playfulness. It was a reminder that even the most poignant works can become dreary, while considered performances of lighter repertoire can have the most entrancing effect.

***11