First encounters are often sweet. My first encounter this afternoon with Paul Lewis and the Vertavo String Quartet was delicious. I had heard a great deal about pianist Paul Lewis, since he had previously graced our stages on many occasions, but this was my first experience hearing him. Lewis appeared in Vancouver today in a programme of chamber music with the young Vertavo String Quartet, formed in Norway in 1984. There is a special connection between Paul Lewis and the quartet, as he is married to cellist Bjørg Lewis of the ensemble.
The programme began with Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 12 in A Major, K. 414, in the composer’s own arrangement for string quartet and piano. Originally scored for orchestra, with the usual complement of strings, with two oboes and two horns, Mozart probably arranged the work for a smaller performing force to make the score more marketable. Composers, from Mozart to Chopin to Debussy, often rescore their works for smaller ensembles to make performances of their works easier in terms of “manpower” required.
Even with the placement of the piano behind the quartet, the music still points to the piano as a solo instrument, rather than part of the sound picture in a piano quintet. Lewis’s playing of Mozart is dainty or pretty, but rather virile, bold, and colourful, without being heavy-handed. The Vertavo provided a beautiful ensemble support for the soloist, and produced a performance that started the concert in a sunny mood.
The quartet alone then gave us an incredible performance of Bela Bartok’s late masterpiece, the String Quartet no. 6. Written in four movements, each movement begins with a short slow section marked mesto (sad). The pervading sadness that permeates the music is a reflection of the composer’s mood at the time, with the death of his mother, his own failing health, and the outbreak of World War II. In the first movement, Berit Cardas’s magnificent and deeply felt playing of the mournful solo opening particularly moved me. As much as I enjoyed hearing the quartet as a whole, Cardas’s was the sound that remained in my ears long after the performance was over. In the second movement, Bjørg Lewis’s playing of the solo that opens the movement was also memorable. From the first note to last, the performance and ensemble were flawless. The playing of the third movement, the violent, almost savage Burletta, was simply stunning. The music of the fourth movement is beautiful, elegiac and reflective, and the quartet delivered all those qualities in their performance. At the end, the music simply dies away, like the last soft breath of a dying man.
The mood of the concert turned sunny again after the interval, with a delightful performance of Antonin Dvorak’s Piano Quintet in A Major, Op. 81, B. 155. In the Mozart concerto that opened the concert, the audience’s attention was always directed toward the soloist. In the Dvorak, the piano sound is melted into and became part of the ensemble’s welter of sound. Paul and Bjørg Lewis played the opening of the first movement, one of the composer’s most enchanting melodies, simply exquisitely. When first violinist Øyvor Volle took up the same melody, her sound matched the beauty of Lewis’s cello solo. I thought that Paul Lewis played the main theme of the second movement a little too aggressively, thus robbing it a little of its melancholic charm. That really is my only minor quibble of the entire performance. The musicians delivered the scherzo movement, marked furiant, with vigour, but also with a Mendelssohnian lightness that was quite infectious. The performance of the final movement was one of unrelenting energy, like a molto perpetuo, but retaining the lightness that the music also calls for.
I was grateful finally to have heard Paul Lewis in Vancouver, and encountering the Vertavo String Quartet. Mr. Lewis will be performing again later on this season, and I am very much looking forward to that. But I also hope that there will be many more opportunities for Vancouver to hear the Vertavo Quartet on our stages.