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Review: Epic Fragment (The Australia Piano Quartet)

Live Reviews - Classical Music | Chamber

Review: Epic Fragment (The Australia Piano Quartet)

by Lisa MacKinney on March 17, 2017 (March 17, 2017) filed under Classical Music | Chamber | Comment Now
★★★★★ Riveting performances of neglected youthful masterpiece and epic Romantic smasher.

Melbourne Recital Centre, Salon
March 10, 2017

The Australia Piano Quartet has been Ensemble in Residence at the University of Technology Sydney since 2012. The group tours nationally and internationally on a regular basis, and, in addition to performing cornerstones of Piano Quartet repertoire, are vigorous commissioners of new works. They are also committed to bringing lost and/or neglected works to the attention of their audiences, and one the most noteworthy and unusual instances of this is the Piano Quartet in A minor by Gustav Mahler.

Mahler’s one (yes, one) surviving chamber work is shrouded in mystery, and rightly termed an ‘Epic Fragment’. It dates from his days as a student, and according to Mahler scholar Donald Mitchell, was likely the work for which he won a composition prize at the Vienna Music Academy in 1876, when he was sixteen. It is not clear from archival references whether two performances in 1876 (with Mahler, an exceptional pianist, performing the piano part) refer to this one movement or to an entire three or four-movement work, but available evidence suggests that a full work was not completed. Mahler met his close friend Nathalie Bauer-Lechner around this time, and in her memoirs she recalled discussions of ‘a sonata for violin and piano, a nocturne for the cello, all sorts of things for piano,’ none of which have survived. This has resulted in a good deal of speculation regarding the fate of these works, and the possibility that a mature Mahler, embarrassed by early youthful experiments, destroyed them. Whatever the reasons, this is his single surviving chamber work, and it languished in obscurity until discovered by Alma Mahler in her late husband’s papers in the early 1960s, after which it was transcribed by Dika Newlin and performed again in 1964. 

If all this were not enough, the work itself is an electrifying piece of compressed Romantic agony – mysterious, agitated and passionate. It first came to my attention through a magnificent Deutsche Grammophon recording from 2015 featuring violinist Daniel Hope, and gradually became indelibly imprinted on my consciousness. Despite repeated and somewhat obsessive listening, nothing quite prepared me for the experience of hearing it performed live in the superb acoustic of the Melbourne Recital Centre Salon. Pianist Daniel de Borah anchored the performance with glistening assurance, and violinist Andrew Haveron (standing in for Rebecca Chan) soared with a rich, sonorous tone. Violist James Wannan and cellist Thomas Rann complemented stunningly with glorious, unhurried legato, and the balance between instruments was perfect. This was a mesmerising reading of a captivating and elusive work; a consummate performance.

As was the case on the aforementioned recording, the Mahler Piano Quartet was performed in conjunction with one of Brahms’ three Piano Quartets: tonight, No 2 in A, Op. 26. This epic, four-movement work runs to around fifty minutes, and again de Borah shone in the lengthy opening Allegro Non Troppo movement, the beginning of which is deceptively innocent but quickly descends into turbulence. The quite extraordinary second Poco Adagio movement is characterised by a rippling arched piano motif that bristles with tension and is constantly on the brink of explosion. Again, the balance between instruments remained beautifully nuanced through to a breathy Allegro Finale

The Australia Piano Quartet delivered a riveting performance of two magnificent Piano Quartets written approximately a decade apart, polar opposites in terms of length and conception but perfectly complementary. It was a privilege to witness, and it is to be hoped that this excellent ensemble will see fit to revisit Mahler’s Epic Fragment in the near future.