CLASSICAL MUSIC / Looking as if he means it: Endellion Quartet - South Bank Centre

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The Independent Culture
For Stravinsky, Rachmaninov at the piano was 'a 6 1/2 ft-tall scowl'. While wonderful sounds emerged from the body of the instrument, Rachmaninov sat like a block of wood, his face registering nothing more than controlled displeasure. Visually Boris Berezovsky is a pianist in the same mould - except that his face doesn't even scowl. His expression during the three Chopin Nocturnes he selected for Wednesday's Queen Elizabeth Hall concert was absolutely deadpan; even the arms and wrists seemed to move no more than was absolutely necessary.

But the resemblance to Rachmaninov doesn't end there. Berezovsky's face and torso expressed nothing simply because the energy, the feeling, the fantasy were being channelled into the piano. The opening Nocturne, Op 55 No 2, was hypnotically beautiful, as subtle and eloquent an example of pianistic bel canto as one could hope to find, yet utterly unegotistic (or, if that's an illusion, it's a masterly one). On paper, proceeding - or rather regressing - from this late masterpiece to the earlier, much more superficial Op 9 No 1 looked like a mistake. In performance, the spell was just the same.

It made a strange contrast with the previous item: Haydn's Quartet in G minor, Op 74 No 3, played by the Endellion Quartet. The slow movement is one of the most unworldly things in all Haydn; even its key, E major, comes as a shock after the G tonality of the first movement - a shame that, as in most performances, this dramatic shift had to be spoiled by half a minute of retuning. Still, this is a different universe from the rarefied salon Chopin - the rhythms in the outer movements were bracing, the atmosphere unmistakably out-of-doors. This music is still strongly aware of roots in the soil - as, it seemed, were the Endellion.

Brahms's Piano Quintet, after the interval, offered a kind of fusion, bringing together not only Berezovsky and the Endellion, but also the romantic poetry of Chopin and the earthiness and intellectual power of Haydn. Playing was outstanding on all sides - with only passing hints of tiredness from the strings towards the end of the finale - and the effort to create a unity between the opposed worlds of piano and string quartet could be seen in the way the players looked at each other. I've heard few performances in which volume and tone colour have been as well balanced.

Berezovsky obviously didn't intend to steal the show, but in terms of sheer artistry he stood out even against the more than capable Endellions. There were moments in the first two movements where the expression reached an almost ideal blend of naturalness and power - here, as in the Chopin, Berezovsky appears incapable of self-consciousness. In the elemental Scherzo, his face did at last register something like a grimace and the arms began to swing more energetically. Even at the terrific pace set by cellist David Waterman in the opening pizzicatos, Berezovsky's articulation was spectacularly clear, the rapid repeated notes at the climax emerging like machine-gun fire.

The performance of the finale that followed was of that rare kind which makes one wonder how this movement could ever have been dismissed as 'episodic' or 'sprawling'; that triumph, however, could only have been a team achievement.

Next concert (Schubert: Death and the Maiden Quartet; Quintet in C): tomorrow 3pm QEH, South Bank Centre, SE1 (071-928 8800)