Reviews: Freire plays up Czech brio

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Prazak Quartet and

Nelson Freire

Wigmore Hall, London

Nelson Freire is best known for his piano duo partnership with Martha Argerich, though that was a long time ago, and he has since played in this country as a soloist. On Wednesday he joined the Prazak Quartet, formed in 1972 from students at the Prague Conservatory. They still look too young for that to be possible and played with great warmth and vigour - the first violin and viola-player, seated closest to the audience on each side, turning towards us now and then with energetic body language, as if bringing us into the music. The Quartet started with Haydn's "Emperor" Quartet, Op76 no 3, confidently unanimous, well-balanced, lavish in tone - and vibrato, which didn't always make for unambiguous tuning.

Their choice of Borodin's Piano Quintet in C minor was a bit surprising, but at least aroused curiosity. Borodin was not yet 30 when he wrote it and had already composed quite a number of chamber works, though his best known, the Second String Quartet, came nearly 20 years later. The Piano Quintet is a curiously informal, almost casual, piece in three movements, which begin and end interestingly but get a bit lost in between. In the first movement Borodin seems to improvise with his leisurely theme without quite settling on its possibilities. The central scherzo is tighter, and in that sense more conventional, though it loosens up in a free-sounding and rather melancholy central section. The first theme of the finale has an enchanted atmosphere, a touch like Tchaikovsky, and the music makes some extraordinary changes of key that twist your sense of tonality quite disconcertingly. But perhaps only an "amateur" composer, which in the literal sense Borodin was, would end a piano quintet with the strings playing a chord in quiet harmonics: too daring for most professionals at that time.

The Prazak played with plenty of conviction, which Nelson Preire didn't quite match. But then, in chamber music for piano and strings, the pianist is usually trying to balance discreetly, and in Cesar Franck's epic Quintet Freire stinted his tone in soft passages as if sketching rather than drawing. The piano lid was open on full stick, but the instrument didn't always speak clearly. Nor did strings and piano quite gel in some of the quietly determined passages of the finale, though the Prazak brought all the right feeling of defiant intensity.

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