EIF: Queen’s Hall Openers

Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh

Going by the first few Queen’s Hall morning concerts this year, audience figures can only get better. The two performances – Saturday’s chamber miscellany by players from Festival residents the Philharmonia Orchestra, and Monday’s piano trio fronted by wild-haired pianist Ronald Brautigam – certainly warranted a little more support than they got.

In what was no doubt a pertinent nod to Hans Gál’s role in helping initiate the Edinburgh International Festival in 1947, the Philharmonia Chamber Players began with a string trio by the Edinburgh-based academic and composer who fled his native Vienna after the 1938 Nazi Anschluss. Those who know Gál’s music – heavily rooted in Brahmsian rhetoric, but tinged with hints of wider European progressiveness – will appreciate its fundamental austerity and stinging seriousness. 

There was a sense of deference in this performance, which struggled initially to define much character in the opening movement, but which seemed more open and at ease in the wittier Presto and resourceful Theme and Variations. It’s a style of music that requires, but didn’t always get, persistent emotional initiative from the performers.

Richard Strauss’ Metamorphosen was the game-changer, especially in this novel (to most of us) version for string septet, a considerable reduction on the standard 23-string version that Strauss opted for in its 1946 premiere. The composer evidently drafted the condensed version early on in the compositional process, but it remained unknown until it was rediscovered in 1990, which encouraged the cellist Rudolf Leopold to prepare a performance edition.

If the obvious effect is to trim the fuller version of its sugared opulence, the leaner instrumentation does not lack the passion and heartache that lies at the core of Strauss’ postwar threnody to German culture. Yes, there is a sharpened focus, but as this performance illustrated, that can be its strength. Led by violinist Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay, the septet harnessed the music’s rapt momentum, distinguished by the pulsating clarity and unceasing interaction of their playing.

The player numbers were maximised for Louise Farrenc’s Nonet in E flat, as important for its 19th century craftsmanship as for its composer, a woman in what was then almost exclusively a man’s world. Farrenc was no shrinking violet, demanding and winning equal pay for women on the staff at the Paris Conservatoire in 1850, well before the BBC and Glasgow City Council faced a similar challenge from its female employees. 

Coolish to begin with, this performance blossomed into the peach that this work is, solidly symphonic in structure, yet relaxed in its versatile mix of playfulness, lyrical sweetness and robust argument. Like Schubert’s Octet, the juxtaposition of strings and wind is defining, often the source of wit. 

Fast forward to Monday, when pianist Ronald Brautigam exercised his musical eccentricity playing a 19th century Erard piano that was the centrepiece of a piano trio programme he shared with violinist Esther Hoppe and cellist Christian Poltéra. The instrument was the defining feature in music by Fanny Mendelssohn (sister of Felix), Robert Schumann and Franz Schubert.

What did it bring to the performances? Initially a slight awkwardness, admittedly on my part, gradually tuning into the tonal containment of an instrument that soon proved its worth in recalibrating the modern piano trio to a shared dynamic more commensurate to the 19th century origins of the music. Instead of the dominating power exercised by the modern-day Steinway, here was an instrument more modest in volume, more delicately voiced, yet technically capable – as in the finale of Schubert’s Piano Trio No 2 in E flat – of quick repetition on one note.

The Schubert dominated the programme, both in length and substance. It’s not so long since East Neuk Festival-goers will have heard it in Crail with Elisabeth Leonskaja on piano. This was like another piece altogether, Brautigam’s pianism brilliantly versatile, yet possessing a scale and sweetness of tone that allowed Hoppe and Poltéra ample scope to explore the softest nuances in the knowledge their sound would carry over even the busiest of piano textures. 

The first half paired the boldness of Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio in D minor, from its turbulent opening to the melodic freshness of the inner movements, with the characterful contrasts of Schumann’s Fantasiestücke, its flirtatious Humoreske and the loving expressiveness of the Duett shared by violin and cello among its many highlights.

Ken Walton

Image: Ronald Brautigam by Andrew Perry