Gabriel Fauré: Piano Quartet No. 1 in C Minor, Op. 15
Da-Min Kim: Violin
Marie-Anne Hovasse: Viola
Frédéric Lagarde: Cello
Olivier Lechardeur: Piano
Back in Aix-en-Provence again, and staying in town this time, I had no trouble finding some more high-quality live music to enjoy with the 29th Nuits Pianistiques that, contrary to what their name could lead to believe, do not feature only piano recitals, but also all kinds of chamber music. Moreover, while the performances do not take place outdoors, the event organizers have chosen the next best thing: The Compras auditorium of the Conservatoire Darius Milhaud, a space with such incredible acoustics that violinist and Festival de Pâques’ co-founder and artistic director Renaud Capuçon decided to record his album of Bach concertos there. And what is good enough for Bach and Capuçon is good enough for me.
Since those Nuits Pianistiques were created by the Musique-Échanges association with intergenerational playing and community outreach in mind, they stretch far and wide in terms of musicians and repertoire, but never too thin. On Wednesday night, the program may not have been ground-breaking, but the prospect of indulging in two meaty quartets with piano from Brahms and Fauré—Not to mention a couple of hours in a perfectly calibrated air-conditioned space—was simply too exciting to pass on.
Johannes Brahms was still a young man when he came up with his Piano Quartet No. 1, and yet, it is as stunningly accomplished, both rigorously written and opulently lyrical, as one would expect from the ultimate perfectionist he always was. Moreover, some freshness and insouciance are quite palpable in there too, or is it just the irresistibly high-flying rondo alla zingarese that gives this overall impression? In any case, this last movement certainly gave the entire work lasting recognition. And the sizable audience was more than eager to undertake the magnificent 40-minute journey on Wednesday night.
The four musicians on the stage were definitely up to the task, and expertly handled the challenging and rewarding score. From the deceptively simple opening to the no-holds-barred dazzling finale, they played with technical brilliance, tremendous passion and, maybe most importantly, perfect harmony. Each of them intrinsically knew how to make the most of their part while always fitting in, and the result was a fiercely vibrant performance.
After the intermission, we stayed in the mid-19th century but left Romanticism à l’allemande for Romanticism à la française with Gabriel Fauré’s Piano Quartet No. 1, which he wrote when he was a young man as well, and about to be dumped by an apparently reluctant fiancée he deeply loved at that. That said, although it has its moments of emotional turmoil, the music is not as depressing as the composer’s distressing and no doubt frustrating situation at the time could have led us to expect.
The allegro molto moderato is beautifully melodic, the scherzo is brilliantly playful, the adagio does betray heartbreaking sadness, but always with a sense of restraint, and the allegro molto concludes the piece with plenty of lively energy. Never one to wear his heart on his sleeve, Fauré nevertheless manages to express deep feelings—and display formidable compositional skills too—with sincerity and unfussiness. Readily switching from Brahms’ intense passion to Fauré’s subtle elegance, the quartet beautifully conveyed the work’s sense of airiness, refinement and nuances for an instinctively intimate and yet effortlessly communicative experience.
And then the mood shifted into high gear again when, as an encore, the musicians played the last couple of minutes of Brahms’ rondo alla zingarese again, just for the fun of it. And it sure was.