MUSIC / Animal passions: Intimate Letters - Andras Schiff, Barbican Centre

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The Independent Culture
On Monday, in the first of Andras Schiff's seven Barbican concerts, Janacek's Concertino for solo piano with two violins, viola, clarinet, horn and bassoon, was paired with Schubert's abundantly tuneful Octet, which leaves out piano but adds cello and bass to the other instruments. Cello and bass add 'bottom' - and a thrilling, tremolando introduction to the finale - some drama to offset Schubert's sweetness. But in most of the Octet the limelight falls on the first violin and clarinet, played with exhilarating precision by the leader of Prague's Panocha Quartet and with finely shaded tone by Elmar Schmid. The quartet played the centrepiece of the evening, Janacek's Second Quartet, 'Intimate Letters', with ringing urgency and clean intonation.

In the first two movements of the Concertino, both horn and clarinet had extended dialogues with Schiff - one inspired by the plight of a hedgehog, the other by the antics of a squirrel. Schiff can be rather courtly, but here he threw himself into Janacek's untamed shifts of mood without a hint of reserve. Animals made brief reappearances in Janacek's Nursery Rhymes, sung by the New London Chamber Choir, conducted by James Wood, in the early evening concert on Wednesday.

Janacek's most memorable stroke came in the second of the Songs of Hradcany, in which women's voices were punctuated by trilling phrases on the flute, curling questioningly upwards. Pure genius. Schiff joined the women from the choir in The Wolf's Trail, in which an adulterous wife and her murderous husband were sung with passionate abandon by Amanda Pitt and an unidentified tenor from the choir. She also sang in the demonic tale of Kaspar Rucky, a brilliantly devised ballad, in which the soloist's narrative is set in relief against a steadier background of women's voices. Women's choruses aren't everybody's favourite, but Janacek's alchemy made it something else.

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