Live: Vertavo String Quartet / Graham Scott Wigmore Hall, London

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Until Carl Nielsen established himself as a composer, he was a professional violinist. You would expect his string quartets to be characteristic and better known than they are, but they're all relatively early works and the distinctive style of Nielsen's symphonies is barely recognisable in them.

The young Vertavo String Quartet from Norway, all women, have recently made a persuasive CD of the first two and played No l in G minor, Op 5, at the Wigmore Hall on Tuesday. Nielsen was his own man, and never subscribed to the prevalent Romanticism of European music in the late 19th century. But though he admired Mozart more than anyone, the classicism of this quartet is closer to Brahms and Dvorak - perhaps there are touches of Schubert, too. The coda of the finale could almost have been written by Dvorak, and the Vertavo Quartet played the whole work with a sort of Bohemian out-of-doors vigour and freshness.

They were also vigorous, and not too arch, in the sardonic swagger of Hugo Wolf's Italian Serenade. It almost lifted you out of your seat. Then they were joined in a very effective partnership by the young English pianist, Graham Scott, in one of the great piano quintets of the 19th century, written in the late 1880s, just about the same time as Nielsen composed his First Quartet.

Dvorak's Piano Quintet is liberal with catchy melodies, and also relishes them at length. The very first idea, introduced by the cello over a simple rocking accompaniment on the piano, has a rather self-satisfied and oafish air, but is mercifully transformed by a switch to a lively tempo and flood of passionate exuberance. The theme soon reappears in its earliest form on the first violin, unfortunately mawkish on Tuesday because of the player's bilious-making vibrato. Perhaps it was a pity the players switched places after the first half of the concert, because earlier, you wouldn't have remarked on any inequality and the unanimity of the whole group had been striking.

In Dvorak's moody second movement, a ballad-like "Dumka", the viola has a lot of the limelight, revealing its dark, woody quality, and Henninge Batnes played very eloquently; towards the end, when the cello takes over the viola's melody, Bjorg Vaernes showed a very distinctive, slightly plangent tone colour. The Quintet's first two movements are by far the longest and the most interesting. But the strings were pretty wild in the brief Scherzo, which was obviously enjoyed by Scott, who played brilliantly, and after an exhilarating finale, the lusty applause and four bunches of flowers for the women (why not one for Mr Scott, too?) prompted an encore of the Scherzo.

ADRIAN JACK

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