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Georgy CATOIRE (1861-1926)
Piano Quintet in G minor, Op. 28 (1914) [24:21]
Ignaz FRIEDMAN (1882-1946)
Piano Quintet in C minor (1918) [36:58]
Nils-Erik Sparf, Ulf Forsberg (violins); Ellen Nisbeth (viola); Andreas Brantelid (cello); Bengt Forsberg (piano)
rec. 2017, Allhelgonakyrkan, Stockholm, Sweden
BIS BIS-2314 SACD [62:08]

If you have a penchant for the particular combination of piano and string quartet, a grouping that really came into its own with Robert Schumann's Op. 44 of 1842, then this latest release from the BIS label could be for you. With Schumann, the quintet became no longer a grouping where the piano dominated and the strings were cast in a supporting role; he established a partnership of equals, a "vehicle for Romantic expression" as British musicologist Colin Lawson put it.  The phrase aptly sums up the two piano quintets on this recording - two works, by hardly household names, both faded into oblivion and now thankfully rescued from the mists of time.

These piano quintets are roughly contemporaneous, both penned during the dark days of World War 1. Each straddles the fence between post-romanticism and modernism.  Of the two, it's the Catoire that's the gem. He was born in Moscow of French ancestry and studied piano at the Moscow Conservatory with Carl Klindworth, a pupil of Liszt. As a composer he was largely self-taught, and was to teach composition at the Conservatory from 1916 until his death in 1926. His compositional output was relatively meagre, amounting to just 36 opus numbers, mainly chamber music, a symphony, symphonic poem, some songs and a handful of solo piano works. The Piano Quintet dates from 1914 and bears a dedication to Pavel Lamm, a professor at the Moscow Conservatory.

The opening measures of the first movement put me in mind of the beginning of the Tchaikovsky Piano Trio, Op. 50. Melancholy and an underlying sadness run their course. The composer balances moments of introspection with sections of drama and passionate intensity. I was struck by the dense thickets of texture and harmonic complexity of the writing. I particularly like the slow movement, marked Andante. Catoire paints a hazy, mystical landscape, swaddled in a dreamy pall. Shards of light conjure up a magical vista in the finale. Like much of the composer's work, formidable technical demands are placed on the performers.

I know of Ignaz Friedman as a pianist of stature, never realizing he had also been a composer. Born and raised in Podgórze, a district of Kraków, Poland, he trained as a pianist in Leipzig and Vienna. A triumphant debut in 1904 kick-started a spectacular concert career. Such was its success that it overshadowed his other efforts. His Piano Quintet of 1918 was dedicated to Maria Christina, Archduchess of Austria and Queen Regent of Spain. It's cast on a larger scale and is more diffuse than the Catoire. Lush romantic sweep introduces the first movement. Its energy and vigour are broken, on occasion, by an elegant, richly chromatic Viennese-style waltz, which could have come from the pen of Richard Strauss. The second movement is a theme and variations. The theme is dour and pensive, and maybe reflects the cataclysmic horrors of World War 1 which had just concluded. The finale is titled 'Epilogue'. Friedman takes a Polish folk tune and subjects it to various transformations.

The stylish playing of Nils-Erik Sparf, Ulf Forsberg (violins), Ellen Nisbeth (viola), Andreas Brantelid (cello) and Bengt Forsberg (piano) dusts down and brings to life these compelling scores. As a devotee of the long-forgotten, I'm pleased to make their acquaintance. BIS can be commended for their fine sonics.

Stephen Greenbank

Previous review: Rob Barnett



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