Languishing between triumphant soloist and almighty orchestra, chamber music has long been overlooked, even misunderstood. But to musicians like violin soloist Ning Feng
, it is the foundation of all music. ‘I tell my students, even a concerto is a trio between you, the conductor and the orchestra,’ he says. ‘You have to know what your partners are playing, you have to listen, and you have to react.’
China – indeed Asia – is a soloist-centred musical culture, meaning audiences go for the name, not the programme. This makes chamber music even harder to accept. But Ning felt that featuring famous soloists in small ensembles would raise the brand.
In 2012, he formed the Dragon Quartet with cello soloist Qin Liwei; this month, piano luminary and Ning’s frequent chamber partner Chen Sa joins Ning, Qin, and violist Wenxiao Zheng to form a piano quartet.
‘She is a wonderful, wonderful musician,’ Ning says of Chen. ‘She has a very natural feeling towards music, so it actually [helps] me express my feelings as well. Also, she has a sensitive, delicate nature,’ he says. ‘This brings something to our music-making.’
True, most composers wrote for string quartets or piano trios, but the piano quartet balance of cello, violin, viola and the eponymous instrument inspired some great works.
This programme includes the little-known Piano Quartet in C minor by Wladyslaw Zelenski and Mahler’s Piano Quartet in A minor, which he composed as a teenager and possibly left incomplete. Also featured is Brahms’ Piano Quartet in G minor – premiered by Clara Schumann, orchestrated by Arnold Schoenberg and transformed into ballet by George Balanchine.
Clearly, chamber music has something for everyone.