This young, up-and-coming string quartet have been making waves for a few years now, garnering extensive praise from all corners as well as a pick-and-mix of awards and honours, including, most recently, their second award from the Hattori Foundation for the Music and the Arts. Their performance at the JDP Theatre here in Oxford, 26 April, was not an event to be missed for fans of bowed and strung music, but I have to confess to at first being a little disappointed in the rather safe programme choice of Mozart, Schumann and Dvořák, hardly unusual repertoire.
The reinterpretation of canonic, apprently well-known and ‘safe’ pieces is perhaps where Piatti really excel, as this concert aptly demonstrated. The quartet really seem to find joy in injecting a newborn sparkle and energy into these pieces all too frequently consigned to the cemetery.
The opener, Mozart’s Quartet no. 22, was admittedly hardly spectacular. Although the execution was admirably precise and luminous with some great cello solos from Jessie Ann Richardson, the performance seemed to fall into the pitfall, so easy in Mozart, of becoming distanced and routine. It was difficult to escape the impression that we were really witnessing a warm-up session, perhaps one played by such musicians in childhood practice rooms under the eyes of stern music teachers.
Luckily, everything changed from the very opening notes of Schumann’s third quartet, generating a tangible electricity of immediacy that never let up for the rest of the concert. The 2nd and 4th movements especially were full of a dynamism and vitality that demonstrated a much deeper level of engagement with the music, as well as with each other as an ensemble. They seem to function on the basis of almost intuitive understanding, the four serious performers who idiosyncratically also occasionally exchange gleeful glances as their respective instrumental lines intertwine.
The Dvořák was undoubtedly the highlight, taking on remarkably symphonic sonority through a truly physical engagement as exemplified by Michael Trainor’s frankly violent plucking in the third movement, as well as the adoption of risky extreme contrasts lending the music even greater energy than the previous Schumann. Stylistically, the Piatti are in many ways shameless romantics, taking advantage of extensive vibrato and dynamic swells in a way that is perhaps currently unfashionable but nevertheless effective in its own way, bringing forth, as it does, the feeling of a bygone era of musicianship.
In hindsight I do feel as though perhaps this aspect of the performance was a touch overwrought and I’m uncertain how such dramatic performance would translate to a recording, should Piatti decide to release an album. But in the heat of the moment there was no question; these doubts were swept away in a tide of tremolando. Truly a testament to their ability to revitalise xisting techniques and repertoire, this was a worthy addition to the Jacqueline du Pré concert series.