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Voland Quartet in concert and on CD

Bartok Sonata za dve piana i udarni (1937)
Ari Ben-Shabetaj - Hora (1997)
Georgi Arnaudov - Variacii po tema ot Rahmaninov (2001)
Aleksandyr Arutiunian - Festive (1962)
Hristo Jocov - Muzikalen moment (2004)
Jezhi Bauer - Divertimento (1965)

Wigmore Hall, 27 December 2006

Bartok's Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion comprised the first half of the London debut recital by this well established Bulgarian pianos/percussion quartet.

The illustration gives Bartok's own platform setting for it. On the Wigmore Hall stage they were very cramped, and one of the percussionists had to show gymnastic agility to squeeze back and forth past the tail of one of the pianos to reach one of his instruments in the front corner.

There were problems of synchronization between the pianos initially - might those have been minimised if they had eye contact rather than sitting back to back?

The programme note explained that the Voland Quartet had opted for slightly slower tempi than usual, in order to respect Bartok's verbal indications above his suspect metronome markings. It was a lucid, expressive account of a still tricky 1930s work, the first composed for this combination. Perhaps they will succeed in commissioning a major work from one of today's composers?

Meanwhile, of the other pieces presented, the most interesting and effective was the Hora of the Israeli composer Ari Ben-Shabetai.

The Voland Quartet brought with them a newly released CD of the identical programme, and this will be reviewed more fully by Musical Pointers.

Peter Grahame Woolf

Voland Quartet (Two Pianos and Percussion)
(The same programme on CD)

Gega New Music GD310

Does the Voland's deliberately slow performance of the Bartok bring something special to the work? Yes, it is lithe, energetic, expressive by turns; but no, the sense of having time to stand and stare is no improvement on Bartok's deliberate breathlessness.

Certainly, the Voland's justification of their tempi in booklet notes (identical to the programme notes for their concert) is however superfluous – composers are notoriously hazy about marking metronome numbers for their own works. However, if you are used to versions such as the Argerich-Kovacevich, this is unlikely to disturb your allegiance.

Arutiunian's Festive , with its boisterous dance rhythms and good spirits, and Ben-Shbetaj's intense, questing Hora , are fine examples of what can be done with the form. Arnaudov's variations and Bauer's Divertimento are less obviously inspired. All benefit from an immaculate sense of ensemble, the players having great familiarity with one another, and from lively, close recorded sound.

The problem with the disc, however, and indeed the concept of a permanent two piano and percussion disc, is that Bartok ‘said it all.' It is this very ground-breaking work that decisively established the link between percussion instruments themselves and the percussive aspects of the piano. The recent McLachlan recording, for example, which offers a ‘straighter' performance of the Bartok, has as its longest work the rhythmically interesting, non-percussion, Rite of Spring.

When protagonists of even traditionally established forms such as the Piano Quartet and Quintet complain about the limitations of the genre, I remain to be convinced that ensembles such as the Voland have an infinite future. Meanwhile, the very need to have produced a recording identical to concert programmes makes one suspicious as to the fecundity of the repertoire.

Ying Chang