Monday 10th November 2014

Since Monday’s performance by The Atalanta Piano Quartet was another of the now regular annual collaborations between Aberdeen Chamber Music Concerts and SOUND, I will begin this review with the one contemporary piece in the programme. This was Sequenza Notturna by Martin Butler (b.1960) premiered by the Schubert Ensemble at the City of London Festival on July 7th 2003.

It opened with brittle glassy piano figurations followed soon by the subtle entry of muted strings. Viola and cello remained muted in the background to begin with but the violin, now unmuted, rose up to front the texture with a melodic line that made me think of the soaring vocalisations of a Hebrew Cantor, though pianist Simon   Lane suggested a more generalised Middle-Eastern flavouring to the music. The repeated notes with the subtlest of decorative turns played by the viola intensified this ambience which was then taken up and developed more expansively by the other instruments. The energy underlying the music right from the beginning rose to the surface as the playing increased in tempo. As the title suggested there was a definite nocturnal feeling to the piece which had a finely tinged hypnotic appeal.

The other three pieces in the concert were in total contrast to Martin Butler’s thoughtful and rather introverted music – all of them bursting with extrovert showmanship and thus presenting challenges to which the Atalanta Piano Quartet rose with real technical and artistic pizzazz.

Simon Lane’s piano playing had a marvellous liquid fluency which became apparent from the very start of Beethoven’s Piano Quartet in E flat Major Op. 16. It is an arrangement by Beethoven himself of a work originally composed for a wind quartet of oboe, clarinet, bassoon and horn with piano. It came across superbly well on Monday for the combination of string trio and piano. As Dr Lydia Thomson writes in her excellent programme note “the setting of the piano against the strings is typical of the work as a whole” and some commentators (Stephen Strugnell) have suggested that the outer movements are like a chamber concerto for piano. The piano introduces all three movements and in the first it often led with the melody or else provided a decorative background to the strings or else provided the propulsive force that drove the music onward.

In the second movement however Beethoven gives all the instruments the chance to sing out and take the lead – yes and the viola too. The Rondo finale had a jolly sunny tune in which all four players rejoiced and of course Beethoven gives the piano its own cadenza in this movement.

Schumann’s Piano Quartet Op. 47 is also in the key of E flat Major but here the balance between strings and piano is more even handed. The strings in the opening movement had a far more prominent role. In the Scherzo, both strings and piano were hard driven but with a nice wind-blown feel too. The Atalanta Piano Quartet gave us their most marvellous ensemble playing in the third movement, Andante cantabile. There was a lovely duo for viola carrying the tune with violin in harmony above supported by pizzicato cello and piano and then a thoroughly delicious cello solo leading to a surprising and imaginative coda whose three note motif was taken up by the exciting finale. Here was the most amazing fast paced contrapuntal music like Bach on an adrenalin rush. The players of the Atalanta Quartet, especially the cellist, seemed to be throwing their whole bodies into the playing and they took us all the way with them.

The final piece in the concert following on from Martin Butler’s contemporary piece was Fauré’s Piano Quartet No.1 in c minor Op.15. The opening movement achieved great refinement of texture with the strings to the forefront in superb contrapuntal playing. The Scherzo with its pizzicato episodes for strings alternating with wonderfully light-textured bowing and racing piano and with muted strings for the trio which was well integrated with the rest of the Scherzo was indeed, as the programme note stated – a real tour de force both for Fauré and for the members of the Atalanta Quartet.

The Adagio enjoyed even more strikingly beautiful ensemble playing from the Quartet before, with their most fervent and ebullient musicianship apparently easily to hand, they tore into the finale marked Allegro molto. It was exactly that; I could not take my eyes off the cellist’s fingers as they leapt hither and thither over the fingerboard seemingly wild and totally out of control but actually, like all the other members of the Quartet, a paragon of precision playing.

Atalanta Piano Quartet review