MUSIC / Tense freshness and parlour games: Adrian Jack on the Vellinger String Quartet at the Purcell Room and Ivan Moravec at the Wigmore Hall

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The Independent Culture
THE PARK LANE GROUP observed Good Friday in slightly idiosyncratic fashion by getting the young Vellinger String Quartet to play Haydn's Seven Last Words of Our Saviour on the Cross with Mendelssohn's F minor Quartet - his response to the death of his sister.

Piers Burton-Page introduced the Mendelssohn at the Purcell Room in London with a selection of poems to put the Haydn in context. These seven slow movements are more graceful than profound, and make for a rather bland form of contemplation, but they are framed by a dramatic prologue and epilogue which the Vellinger played with electrifying precision and energy. And they sustained that tense freshness of passion throughout the Mendelssohn in a magnificent display of disciplined ensemble.

If the Vellinger Quartet seemed like musicians eager to prove their worth - and succeeding - the Czech pianist Ivan Moravec typified the bad habits of experience in his Wigmore recital in London the following evening. Debussy's Dr Gradus ad Parnassum or the Prelude to the Suite Bergamasque might have been part of a parlour game of spot the tune, so arbitrary were his rhythmic shaping and fluctuations of tempo. In the final Passepied of the Suite Bergamasque and the Prelude to Pour le piano, Moravec seemed to be searching for the notes, and yet the effect was the opposite of spontaneous, merely stilted and downright puzzling.

He looked as if he was confined in a straitjacket and took his time round awkward corners accordingly. He even managed to turn Golliwogg's Cake-Walk, which went fluently enough, into something complacent and humourless, as if we could take it for granted. The sound he produced was consistently dull and colourless, evoking that pervasive fog which people used to think was appropriate to Debussy, drawing misleading parallels with the paintings of Whistler.

In Chopin's Barcarolle, and his A flat and G minor Ballades, Moravec made a good deal more sense and achieved a rather Germanic kind of dignity; he seemed to be telling a story of a life and passions long- since lost touch with, fossilised and respectable.

Surely this stodgy kind of playing died a natural death long ago. The sparse numbers at the Wigmore Hall on Saturday night did not suggest that Moravec has much of a following here. Yet his biography lists recordings and engagements with major orchestras in this country, the USA and elsewhere, which bear witness to an active and successful career. The musical world is nothing if not mysterious.