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.
see also review by Stephen