Sunday, March 11, 2012

Khatia Buniatishvili and friends : Schumann Piano Quartet Op 47

With many thanks to Piero, who uploaded this into the comments on a previous posting, here is a wonderful piece of chamber music making. 

The Schumann piano quartet has always languished in the shadow of the phenomenal piano quintet. The quintet just seems to play itself, and its pianistic difficulties (those horrifying rapid octaves, written to show off Clara's technique, for instance) are counterbalanced by the ease of the music itself. It never seems to outlast its welcome, or to lose its way.

The quartet, on the other hand, can easily seem repetitive, yammering in the piano part and curiously under-powered. Part of this has to do with the immense difference between the modern piano and the piano of Schumann's day. Many of the apparent doublings of the string parts by the piano are actually the reverse: the strings are doubling the piano to make sure that the piano line is audible! And the lighter, clearer sound of Schumann's piano (particularly in the bass) meant that those endless repeated chords bounced melodiously. On a modern piano, they have hardly time to establish the basic sound before they are cut off. 

All of this makes the work really hard to bring off. And so, when Piero uploaded this performance, my hair stood on end. Just listen to the music making! The breathtaking clarity of Buniatishvili's playing is a key ingredient to the success. She creates feather-light textures that have a bell-like clarity without the faintest sense of the tone being muzzled. And this allows the energy and drive of her fellow-musicians to shine through. And what musicians! I couldn't get a shot of them all together, so I put a photo of each musician in each of the movements, and I have used a well-known shot of Robert and Clara for the posting. 

This is chamber music of the highest order. If you ever had doubts about the Schumann quartet, abandon them here.

Incidentally, the Schumann's are pictured at a gate piano. The gate piano was so called because the whole action – keyboard, hammers, dampers, the lot – hinged outwards like a gate, allowing you to work on it very easily. When you close it, a long rod goes right down through it, holding it in place. I played on a piano like this one, beautifully restored, many years ago, at the home of Cathal Gannon, a wonderfully eccentric Irishman who built harpsichords and restored old pianos. 

Schumann: Piano Quartet Op 47
Boris Brovtsyn (violin), Julian Rachlin [viola] Boris Andrianov [cello] Khatia Buniatishvili [piano]. Recorded 2009-12-28 in Vredenburg, Utrecht. 256 kbs.

Download from Rapidshare


  1. They make it sound so easy. Yet my ear hangs on every note as if it is a surprise.

    Yes it's wonderful.

  2. Ronan,
    glad you liked the Schumann. Informations about that performance are hard to get to, including pictures.
    Apparently it was seen as an afternoon appetizer for the main evening course. According to the website of the Vredenburg Music Center they played at 2:00 pm.

    On a facebook page there are a couple of pics of Khatia Buniatishvili, one with Julian Rachlin (I think)

    and another one with Boris Brovtsyn
    (possibly from the Franck performance).

    Just for comparison, I have here an earlier performance (Dec28-2005) of the same work with Janine Jansen violin, same violist (Julian Rachlin), a sometimes overbearing cello (Mischa Maisky, not one of my favourites, I confess) and Itamar Golan, piano (I leave the comment to you). Same venue.
    Am I right in thinking the piano is the same in both recordings?


    1. A fascinating comparison. Brovtsyn and company are unafraid to create really lean textures with an almost organ-like tone while Jansen leads an ensemble that relies far more on traditional tonal techniques. That and her tendency to dominate the texture make the chamber music experience less enjoyable. They dig into chords more, suggesting more angst, while Khatia and friends project a magnificent upwelling of joy. It's hardly fair – I think that their performance is a very special occasion, while Janine and company are playing well, but just without the same searing quality.

      Itmar Golan works hard on that piano part, but he seems to chip into those repeated chords while Khatia's just bubble up like champagne. But they are just so so hard!

      I'd bet you're right and it's the same piano. Same slightly dark tone quality anyhow. (Same tuner, then, possibly!)

    2. The reason I put up the recording was not because I liked it more, I myself prefer Khatia's & co., it was really just a common denominators alternative: same festival, same music hall, same viola player, same piano instrument, and a fairly different outcome.
      Interpretatively speaking, I find JJansen a bit of a mixed bag, at least with an orchestra. Sometimes sharp and articulated, sometimes tame to the point of languidness. In this Schumann recording she is surprisingly assertive (maybe chamber music wakes up the lion inside of her or it could be the extra adrenaline of playing on her home turf, I don't know) that's perhaps why you find her on the dominant side here.
      As to the ensemble, more than a reflection of real angst I see in their playing a lot of internalized high-level routine, an embodiment of the idea that Schumann's music (like that of most german romantic and less so composers) requires a curious mix of testosteronic vibrato-rich sentimental lyricism on the interpreters' side to show its real self.
      I might be on the extreme opposite, but I would really be interested in hearing it played like Haydn (not necessarily on period instruments but well in that spirit).

    3. Agreed! Not so much Haydn as Mendelssohn seems to hover over the quartet and quintet. Indeed, Clara was too pregnant to give the second performance of the quintet, and her place at the piano was taken by Mendelssohn! A humbling experience for anyone putting their hand to the piano part, to remember that two of the finest pianists of the age were its first two interpreters.

      It's not so much that Jansen is dominant as that I feel the other players "know their place" – they are there to sing the chorus while the leading lady wows the punters. It's a vision of chamber music I dislike immensely.

      Anyway, the response to this upload from my chamber music friends has been overwhelming! Once again, many thanks.

    4. I might have been a bit careless with my wording. I did not mean to say that the quartet is Haydnian, I just wanted to stress an approach to music that is more lively, joyful, less encumbered with expressive concerns and more alert to articulation and phrasing.
      You mentioned Mendelssohn, which is probably a better example of what I meant. A mostly solar music, content with itself, that ought to get perfomances full of sparkle, joy and passion.

      This is probably a bit of an overstatement but Mendelssohn and your remark on the "upwelling of joy" have made me aware of what this espressivo-school of playing (I mean JJansen & co) does so effectively: denying any joy to the music they play. They can give you fury, passion, sweetness, etc. in a heartfelt, gloomy, melancholic, melting way but never in a joyful one. Like if allowing a glimpse of happiness would make light of the music they so devoutly serve and care for. They seem to me ernste Musik's most serious interpreters.

      That of the ad hoc assembled groups of musicians (usually one or two big names and the rest just called their friends, as you have aptly titled your post) is indeed a problematic issue. While they tend to play a well established repertoire (though not always, saturation being on the lurk), I wonder how well-rehearsed their performances generally are. Hopefully not as much as when the scheduled viola player failed to show up for the opening concert of this year Storioni festival, a replacement had to be called in for the next day and the broadcast of Dvorak's Second Piano Quintet with Alina Ibragimova most regrettably canceled.

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