The musicians need less than three seconds to achieve their maximum impact in terms of the level of sound that they are capable of producing. They are playing the opening movement of Gabriel Fauré’s Piano Quartet in C minor, the Allegro molto moderato of which is transformed into an unstoppable flood of sound that fills the entire concert hall even during the first minute of the piece. The pianist is playing against the background of a large orchestra – or so, at least, it seems.
And yet the impression is a deceptive one, for there is no orchestra onstage, but only a quartet. Kim Barbier is performing with three altogether remarkable string players from the Berlin Philharmonic, and it is their unconventional playing that is the reason why we feel that an entire orchestra is performing here. One already suspects what the players are about to confirm in conversation: here are four performers who as out-and-out individualists, each with an unmistakable claim to be taken seriously as a soloist, are all determined to make themselves heard because they know of no alternative. At the start of Fauré’s first piano quartet, it is the pianist’s turn to assume this role.
Bruno Delepelaire is the ensemble’s cellist and the young pup in a quartet that was formed only recently. It was he who introduced his colleagues to the work and commended it to them. It was only a short time before this that he had been invited to join the Berlin Philharmonic as the orchestra’s principal cellist, but no sooner had he become the fourth member of the Berlin Piano Quartet than he insisted on playing Fauré’s music – the great love of the Frenchman’s life.
Even during the lifetime of a composer who devoted himself by preference to smallscale formats, Fauré’s first piano quartet was already regarded as one of his most
significant chamber works, a piece whose musical Impressionism is unmistakably plain from its Scherzo in second position, if not from the opening Allegro. It is also distinctively French in terms of a musical language that Fauré was keen to promote in the face of German Romanticism and that he proposed as an equally weighty and equally valid alternative to “la musique germanique” at a time when France was recalling its own strengths in fin-de-siècle Europe.
In order to understand this situation, we need to know that a piano quartet is a somewhat unconventional affair and that few examples of the medium have ever been composed. There are string quartets aplenty, but the same is not true of the piano quartet, which also explains why not many musicians have formed permanent ensembles in the way that the Berlin Piano Quartet has recently done. This is almost certainly due to the fact that as a genre the piano quartet does not have a very clear profile, possessing neither the unambiguity of the string quartet nor the obvious claims of the piano trio to be classified as chamber music – Classical and Romantic composers could not write enough piano trios to meet the market’s demands. The situation is by no means as simple in the case of the piano quartet, which can sound as spare-textured as a string ensemble and at the very next moment produce a charge that recalls a full symphony orchestra. Perhaps the composers of the past were not always fully aware of the wealth of musical possibilities inherent in this form, for otherwise they would surely have written far more works for a medium that now seems so fascinatingly appropriate to the times in which we live.
The violist Micha Afkham and the pianist Kim Barbier often perform together. After developing a weakness for the piano quartet from a very early date, they repeatedly invited other musicians to form a quartet with them. Afkham recalls that “after a wild chamber recital a few years ago at the Mozarteum in Salzburg, we were suddenly convinced that it would be wonderful to discover the piano quartet repertory as part of a permanent ensemble.”
Their vision finally became a reality in 2014, when four very different musicians joined forces to form a piano quartet: an exuberant and impassioned pianist with an altogether distinctive presence; a violinist – Christophe Horák from the French-speaking part of Switzerland – who, reflective by nature, is always in search of the perfect tone, the balanced phrase and the interiority of music that he always wants to externalize without ever making it sound as if it has been laid on with a trowel; a violist – Micha Afkham – who initiated this musical enterprise and for whom music is a matter so close to his heart that his profoundly affecting playing is an almost unfiltered expression of his own inner emotional life; and, finally, a cellist – Bruno Delepelaire – who is a musical hothead, brilliant, ambitious and impatient.
For all four players their new ensemble forms a contrapuntal alternative to their everyday lives, which are part of the strict hierarchy of a symphony orchestra, for there is no ranking system within their ensemble. Such a hierarchy was never envisaged by the composers of piano quartets, who were far ahead of their time. “The violin doesn’t play a dominant role in a piano quartet,” says Horák, a circumstance that sets it apart from string ensembles in which the first violin gets a greater lookin, with the result that it is the violinist who mostly takes the decisions. A piano quartet, by contrast, is almost anarchical or, if one prefers it, more modern: here the players are a team, a group of musicians with equal rights and able in that way to create far greater scope for a whole new way of making music. Afkham, Horák, Delepelaire and Barbier consciously decided not to elect a spokesperson but to ensure that each member of their ensemble is taken equally seriously – Afkham with its love of musical discoveries, Horák with his thoughtfulness, and Kim Barbier with her emotional intensity and exceptional feel for the subtle shades of meaning that are to be found not only in the music but also in the relations between the different players. She is the only female member of the group, and there are times when she appears astonished at the three members of the Philharmonic who are making music with her.
It is perhaps significant that these four individualists have chosen to perform Brahms’s first piano quartet in G minor Op. 25 as a companion piece to the Fauré. Brahms’s contribution to the medium is an early work that he wrote for his Viennese debut as a pianist and as a composer in 1862, when he was not yet thirty years old. The piece exudes a very real sense of optimism and hope at the prospect of making a fresh start in life. As such, it could hardly be a better reflection of the new ensemble’s sense of community. The four players have set out on an exciting journey which they are well aware will not only afford themselves the constant pleasure of making music together but will also involve the occasional violent confrontation with one another when they need to discuss the music that they are playing. It is an adventure that is as exciting as the final movement of the first piano quartet, a Rondo alla Zingarese whose gypsy strains had Brahms’s Viennese audience on the edge of their seats at the piece’s first performance in 1862. Brahms brought a great deal of wit and irony to this final movement and created an example of thrilling grotesquerie. The message is clear: we should not take any of all this too seriously, least of all ourselves.
As the second item on their programme, the four musicians have elected to perform Alfred Schnittke’s piano quartet, inserting it between the pieces by Fauré and Brahms. Kim Barbier energetically hammers out Schnittke’s chords, adding them to the shrill and almost enervating glissando of the strings, a glissando which, with its fortissimo marking, spirals upwards, echoing so many of the discordances of life. A final weighty chord – and then silence. A cloud of notes lies suspended in the air before it dies away. As the mists clear, we suddenly hear a Mahlerian motif, quiet, understated, unisono and inordinately peaceful. The four players bring the work to a muted conclusion, striking a note so self-absorbed that the earlier storm seems as if it had never blown up at all.
Schnittke’s piano quartet may be described as the product of a process of failure. A remarkably short work, it is based on a fragmentary Scherzo by the seven teen-year-old Mahler and was intended to constitute a search for the sort of work that Mahler would have written if only he had completed it. Schnittke wanted to compose a piece in the style of Mahler and made several attempts to do so, all of them in vain. Is it possible to remember something that has never taken place? Schnittke abandoned the attempt and instead wrote a pioneering new piece for three string instruments and a piano, a work of his own that lasts only a few minutes and that ends with a note-perfect quotation of the young Mahler’s study. The four musicians have also chosen this work in order to give listeners an idea of the sort of range of which a piano quartet is capable.
“The repertory is not as extensive as it is for other kinds of chamber music,” explains Micha Afkham, “and so we shall be commissioning a number of new pieces.” He makes no secret of the fact that he has long been in contact with several eminent composers. This would certainly be an exciting development for contemporary composers, for music for a piano quartet might allow them to create an entire microcosm of their own, a microcosm in which every aspect of chamber music and orchestral music may be found in concentrated form.
This debut album from the Berlin Piano Quartet marks the start of a voyage of discovery on the part of the musicians. And it is a process that they plan will be a long one. For all four players, everything seems to have come together here: their tremendous heterogeneity; their modern organizational self-governance, which is based on strict equality; and the freedom afforded to a body of players which, reduced in number to the basic minimum, none the less demonstrates a team spirit and which – thanks to the idiosyncrasy of its members – reveals an almost uncanny vitality. And, finally, there is Berlin, a city that continues to be at the cutting edge of new developments and is now a creative powerhouse.