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Sir Philip Ledger – A Musician’s Legacy
Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Piano Quintet in A minor, op. 84 (1918-19) [35:23]1
Antonín DVORÁK (1841-1904)
Piano Quintet No. 2 in A major, op. 81 (1887) [32:36]2
Sir Philip Ledger (piano)
Alberni Quartet
rec. live, Matt Thomson Concert Hall, Royal Scottish Academy of Music & Drama, Glasgow 1 7 November 2001, 2 9 November 2001 DDD

Of the first movement of his Piano Quintet (tr. 1) Elgar wrote ‘It is strange music ... ghostly stuff.’ It has a haunting quality because its themes not only return but expand and transform. The theme heard in fragmentary fashion in the introduction is only fully revealed as the fourth theme at 5:01. Meanwhile there has been a first theme at 1:22, resolute and rather craggy from the Alberni Quartet and Philip Ledger. There’s then a second theme at 2:11, which they present as conscious of its own insubstantiality. The third theme (3:05) they reveal as more ardent, impulsive and insistent despite its salon flavour. Their flow and seamless progression is convincing even if the climax of the development is for me a little lacking in tonal impact. This might be because the clean and clear recording is in a rather dry acoustic. That said, it doesn’t mar an arrestingly fiery recapitulation of the first and second themes before the second is repeated in more cajoling manner. The third theme returns less grand but warmer in articulation. The introduction returns as coda and the haunting continues. Ledger and the Albernis take us on this journey clear-sightedly with an easy-going reflection that can also burst into present passion. For me they have the Elgar idiom just right: there’s an element of reticence amid the emotion. I compared the recording first published in 1985 by the Medici Quartet and John Bingham (Meridian CDE 84502). They more overtly dramatize the music: the second theme is deliciously curvaceous, the third over-milked, but the fourth radiantly calm. Their development has more urgency and excitement though the phrasing is perhaps over-deliberate. The airier Meridian recording is beneficial.
To the glorious slow movement Ledger and the Albernis bring tenderness and an intensely caring quality together with a sufficiently stately flow. Elgar’s Adagio is here no more than Adagietto, timing at 11:12. This makes the musical line satisfyingly clear as is the way one part supports another in turn in the expansive opening theme. There’s also a fine contrast in what is a second section of reflection and commentary rather than a second theme. This is begun with the piano’s 4-note rising figure answered by falling strings before the violin presses on with a new, solemn statement. The opening theme returns in the development with a gnarled nature and then passionate transformation. It reappears in the recapitulation, calm and sunnier than before and now triumphant. You note the delicacy of Ledger’s rising motif at its return. Bingham and the Medicis take this movement Molto Adagio, timing at 13:26. It’s lovingly savoured with every nuance and accent caught and firm, rich lower-string playing. Some sequences have a touch of the mechanical in this distillation and the climax of the development can’t be quite so impetuous. The second section is less contrasted than Ledger/Alberni.
A slide into the first movement introduction to begin the finale (tr. 3) is soon dismissed by a theme presented by Ledger/Alberni with a sterling resolution, a kind of epic defiance. The second theme (2:15) is hardly a theme at all but a rising and falling that is almost imperceptibly enlivened by syncopation. The first movement’s fourth theme is re-introduced in a calm but sure flow with a muted first violin sigh at its end and snatches of the first movement third theme. These recollections are handled with a sure delicacy by Ledger/Alberni before a softly opening recapitulation leads to a spirited climax. Bingham/Medici savour this movement a mite more leisurely in tempo and with more deliberate, rhetorical pointing of accents, notably in the second theme. They lack the sheer sweep of Ledger/Alberni but their first movement fourth theme has a benign stateliness which is very alluring. The playing of Bingham/Medici has more beauty of tone and line than Ledger/Alberni but the latter offer more fire and conviction of progression.
Structurally the Dvorák quintet tends towards the conventional but will always be more popular because of the strength of its melodies. In mood it’s just as open to varied interpretation. Ledger and the Albernis adopt an easygoing yet reasonably progressive tempo for the first movement. Its first theme on the cello is mellow, followed by a spirited tutti then more reflection before an airier repeat of the first theme on piano and then first violin. An exciting dance rounds off this section. The second theme is presented by the viola (2:08), with a touch of edge not in the first theme, but defused when it is repeated by first violin and then piano. That edge returns in the recapitulation and is fully developed to a firm climax. This is a hearty performance, but to gauge how idiomatic it is I compared the 1966 recording by the Smetana Quartet with Pavel Štepán (Testament SBT 1074). They have more warmth and finesse in the presentation of the first theme, a closing dance exciting but at the same time disciplined and a wider-eyed development which commands more attention.
The dumka slow movement from Ledger/Alberni (tr. 5) is notable for the delicacy of its piano opening and a wry experience, yet also warmth, in the viola and then first violin commentary. The slightly faster second section (2:28) is rhapsodic - freer. The piano takes over an ambling melody but the strings’ semiquaver accompaniment is full of life as if to stoke the following treatment of the opening melody by all the strings. This is capped by a first violin descant. There’ a heart-rending intensity at this point and it returns at the close. In the mean-time there has been a Vivace (6:02) in which Ledger/Alberni find gypsy abandon. I prefer their account of this movement to that of Štepán/Smetana who begin with dogged endurance and make more of a joyous contrast of the second section but without Ledger/Alberni’s airy relaxation. Their later treatment of the opening melody is clear in texture but rather Spartan in manner while their Vivace section is lighter and of less substance.
The Ledger/Alberni Scherzo (tr. 6) is notable for its kick. It’s taken at an exuberant pace. There’s a real sense of purpose to the second theme on the viola (0:37) and snowy adornments in thirds from the piano. Some edge remains even in their generally smiling and serene Trio. Štepán/Smetana are neater, less fresh in the Scherzo. Their sleepier Trio has more mystery to it. The progress of the finale (tr. 7) is addressed with gusto and crisp attack throughout by the Albernis and Ledger’s contributions sparkle. Merriment, exuberance and edge abound, also variety. For instance, the episode (1:18) is graceful at first, then bold and fanfare-like. Štepán/Smetana favour a more controlled manner which brings greater contrast, more mischief in the humour, a rather arch treatment and latterly more calm.
These Ledger/Alberni performances are released in memory of Philip Ledger and honour him in the integrity of the playing. The players blend and complement one another. These accounts don’t aim for beauty of tone and texture, but through experience and character convince you that the music matters. They make a worthy tribute to a fine musician.
Michael Greenhalgh

see also review by Stephen Greenbank