Chamber music offers generous rewards to its acolytes, the chief of which is an almost infinite array of instrument combinations. At its core, it is music for friends, so duos, trios, quartets and various other groupings of string, brass and wind instruments all have their place in the canon. Sunday night, at the Music Room it was the turn of the piano quintet. It is a non-standard combination, meaning that there isn’t much repertoire and therefore no permanent quintet ensembles.
Fortunately, the repertoire that does exist is, on the whole, of excellent quality and there are enough string quartets on speaking terms with pianists that occasionally we get to hear some of it. The Madawaska String Quartet from Toronto and pianist Leslie Kinton joined forces on Sunday night to play Shostakovich and Dvorak.
Dmitri doesn’t mess about, preferring instead to ratchet up the intensity from the very first phrase. The MSQ are unabashed in their playing. Usually this is an asset, especially in pieces as fierce as most of Shostakovich’s work but a space the size of the Music Room, it came across as if someone had LEFT CAPS LOCK ON.
Some blame must be placed on the piano. Shostakovich was fond of using extremes in register, which doesn’t suit the Music Room instrument very well. Instead of being grumbly and slightly menacing, the bass is harsh at full volume and unless the pianist has an unusually light touch, the top third of the instrument is shrill at any marking above p.
The Intermezzo was the highlight of the piece with Kinton and the MSQ really showing their expressive side. Beautiful without being overly sentimental, it was a much-needed antidote to the preceding Scherzo. Everything was well played and there were several impressive extended unison passages but in the end, it was all just too much.
The Dvorak is, along with works by Schumann and Brahms, one of the crown jewels of quintet literature. As one of the 19th century’s best melodists, Dvorak took full advantage of all the colours available to him and and created 40 minutes of pure joy.
Compared to Shostakovich’s jaded old man railing against the world’s injustices, Dvorak presents a those beautifully innocent years before life’s first great tragedy when everything seems possible.
The MSQ took some of the edge from their playing but never quite settled into the unaffected sweetness the music needs. While the notes were there and the ensemble tight, the nuances and unexpected gestures were missing. The group’s best moments came in the Trio part of the third movement Scherzo. An extended patch of quiet playing, it was beautifully shaded and had me wishing for more.
Kinton shone in the finale, managing several finger-busting passages with aplomb. Dvorak uses less of the keyboard than Shostakovich, so the instrument’s extreme extremes were, for the most part, a non-issue.
The MSQ have only been together a short while and haven’t had a chance to develop the dynamic subtlety that is the hallmark of seasoned quartets. It will come and when it does, the MSQ will be unstoppable.