Looking over the works played by Ensemble Q in its 2021 season, there’s some names that we really don’t see on Brisbane stages enough – for instance, from the past year, Britten, Ligeti and Schreker were some that immediately leapt out to me. So too in this performance, with Karol Szymanowski’s String Quartet No 2 Op 56 and Lili Boulanger’s Thème et Variations appearing alongside Brahms’ more familiar Piano Quintet in F Minor Op. 34. Here, it was the string quartet side of Ensemble Q (Natsuko Yoshimoto and Anne Horton on violin and Imants Larsens and Trish Dean playing viola and cello).
Szymanowski’s String Quartet is a thorny work, reminiscent of early 20th-century contemporaries like Bartók. One of the things that I maintain is enormously important in any performance is a strong sense that the performers (and the composer, too, for that matter) are confidently leading you through a work’s twists and turns, almost as if you were being led through a maze or a labyrinth. In, say, a Mozart quartet, that’s fairly straightforward – the audience can catch and absorb Mozart’s ideas with no trouble. In something denser like this Szymanowski, the quartet has to have firm and directed ideas about each and every phrase, sub-phrase and dynamic shift. Here, I heard a performance of such incredible clarity and direction that I felt like I could have whistled along with the entire thing. The Ensemble Q quartet explained the whole thing to the audience as if it were the simplest piece in the world, despite the piece’s formidable performance challenges. A remarkable performance of a difficult piece.
Piers Lane took to the stage after this for a performance of Lili Boulanger’s Thème et Variations for solo piano. Lili Boulanger’s life was a difficult one (various forms of chronic illness plagued her all her life), and that certainly comes into play in this work which is rich and deep-hued, but also heavy with sadness. Incidentally, Lane noted that the work was “not a masterwork, but worth hearing” – this is a good point. There’s definitely space on concert programs for pieces that aren’t always the big hitters! Nonetheless, this is a terrific piece, rolling from variation to variation, outlining the sparse melancholy of Boulanger’s initial theme. Lane’s performance was confident and assured, impressing (as always) with his easy virtuosic style. Quieter variations were sparse and unaffected, and the applause after the final doom-laden bass notes rang out was intense.
Brahms’ Piano Quintet in F Minor was the centrepiece of this concert. I was quite prepared to be simply “whelmed” here, having heard so, so many performances of this piece over the years, but frankly, this was a jaw-dropping performance. My notes for the third movement Scherzo, for instance, are, in their entirety, a single word – “WOW!”. The first movement started perhaps a little safely, but by the time the piece had really got underway it was clear that this was something special. The free-flowing melodies of the second movement were rapturous and gentle, but felt as if they’d been perfectly placed within the movement’s overarching form, while the third movement was (as you can probably guess from my single note) a full-blooded performance that felt as powerful as if it was a thunderous finale. The finale proper was just as good, seamlessly shifting gears from the initial poco sostenuto to the allegro before the final rush of the concluding presto section.
This was the sort of performance that I haven’t seen in a while, where I was reminded of the sort of heights that chamber music can reach. Not once did I hear a note without a rock-solid sense of direction and confidence behind it. Quite possibly the best performance I’ve seen all year, and an astonishing feat of music-making.