CATOIRE; FRIEDMAN Piano Quintets
Bengt Forsberg has always been a great champion of the underdog and he has gathered around him a quartet of musicians who clearly feel the same way. Both these quintets are rarities, having been only rarely previously recorded. Despite his French name, Catoire was a Russian who trained as a pianist with Liszt’s pupil Karl Klindworth, was encouraged as a composer by Tchaikovsky and then taught by Rimsky-Korsakov and Liadov.
The opening movement of Catoire’s Quintet is dominated by a sense of tumult, Forsberg leading the way and making light of the considerable demands made on the pianist. You wouldn’t exactly come away humming the tunes but the players make the best of its slightly earnest striving quality and avoid the discourse ever becoming too heavy-going.
Things begin to get interesting in the slow movement, which opens with a keening viola melody imaginatively set against delicate piano and pizzicato strings. Forsberg et al make much of every phrase, occasionally sounding a little studied. But the switch to E flat major, Con intime sentimente, introduced by the strings, is beguilingly done and the way the mood gradually becomes more troubled is finely judged, as is the high-lying cantando writing and the movement’s muted close.
Catoire again demonstrates his ear for imaginative textures in the finale, the opening high-lying and with a skittish quality, which contrasts with more trenchant writing. There are plenty of opportunities for each player to show his or her mettle but the composer also delights in big tuttis – which never get heavy in this performance. It finally reaches a consoling mood, with a shimmering close that is tellingly realised here.
Catoire’s Quintet was written in 1914; from four years later comes Friedman’s and again it sounds more part of the Romantic tradition than anything 20th-century. That quality is vividly conveyed in this reading, which comes, perhaps in part, from the fact that this is an ensemble of soloists rather than pianist plus established quartet, as in the case of the Szymanowski and Jonathan Plowright. After the turbulent opening, with a chromatically descending theme that could in the wrong hands sound slightly Hammer Horror, comes a lilting waltz-like second idea. Forsberg’s group make much of the contrast between the two, while the Szymanowski/Plowright are more streamlined in effect. There’s a palpable sense of excitement at the key climaxes in this new recording – whether you prefer that or the Hyperion set is really down to taste.
Friedman’s slow movement is nominally a set of variations but sounds for all the world like a sequence of miniatures. Forsberg et al lovingly mould the theme itself, though I find them a little studied in the lively mazurka variation compared to Plowright and friends, and in the Barcarolle, too, I prefer the more delicate textures of the earlier account. The finale begins pensively, based on a folk-like tune that contrasts with a more energetic second idea. While Plowright and the Szymanowski give the folk flavour a real tang, I like the way Forsberg and friends bring out the reminiscences from earlier in the work, displaying great colour and imagination. A fascinating addition to the quintet discography.