Above: Daniel Hope, Wu Han, Paul Neubauer, and David Finckel
Tuesday March 3rd, 2015 - My expectations are always high when heading to a concert at Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. Tonight's line-up - both of music and musicians - promised an exceptional experience, and my expectations were not just fulfilled, but surpassed.
On a night of horrible winter weather, the intrepid fans of Chamber Music Society refused to be deterred. Wu Han, pianist de luxe and co-artistic director of the Society, greeted us with some exciting news: the concert was being recorded for release by Deutsche Grammophon; she asked that we be on our best 'quiet' behavior so that the microphones could capture the music without extraneous noises intruding.
The players then took their places and gave us a magnificent rendering of Gustav Mahler's piano quartet in A-Minor. This is the only existing chamber work by the composer; while a student at the Vienna Conservatory, he is known to have composed some prize-winning independent movements for chamber ensemble, but only this single movement has survived (along with a few bars from an unfinished scherzo). The teen-aged composer's style here is conservative, showing the influences of Schumann and Brahms; yet one can hear hints of his developing musical personality. The bottom line is: it's a gorgeous piece.
And what a gorgeous job the players made of it. Right from the first measures we were drawn in: can any pianist do 'mystery' like Wu Han? Such a beautiful shimmer to her whisperingly soft playing. A descending theme of longing tenderness is passed from voice to voice: Daniel Hope, a master of mixing intensity with silky ideal-vibrato sound; Paul Neubauer's poignantly resonant alto; and David Finckel's cello grounding the music with its heart-tugging mellowness. This was a quarter-hour of pure luxuriant beauty. For all the marvels Mahler produced in the symphonic and vocal realms, after hearing this quartet I can only feel regret that he did not pursue the chamber music genre as his individual style blossomed. Think of the masterworks that might have been...
Robert Schumann, on the other hand, gave chamber music players (and lovers) a veritable treasure chest of riches. A program note describes a particularly prolific period in 1842 when he seemed to be reeling off one work after another with feverish obsession. And the quality is simply mind-boggling. It took its toll on the composer: like so many great creative artists, he paid the price for his passion. And yet, where would we be without this kind of inspired dedication? The world is the richer for it.
In Schumann's piano quartet in E-flat major, the four musicians achieved wondrous blendings of timbres and - as always - I was so entranced by their silent communication as they play together. The opening movement, with its rising scale motif, leads to scampering scherzo with a lyrical core. It's in the andante cantabile that Schumann's songfulness overflows: this calm and melodious passage is highlighted by an especially gracious duet for violin and viola, followed shortly by a solo that David Finckel's cello sang so splendidly for us this evening. Meanwhile Wu Han was drawing the undercurrent themes into a persuasive flow of sound all her own. The concluding vivace, showing the composer's inexhaustible goldmine of melody, found the players matching wits as well as techniques. The audience, delighted, gave them a rousing applause.
The first piano quartet of Johannes Brahms (premiered in Vienna in 1862) was orchestrated by Arnold Schoenberg in 1937 and in that incarnation became the score of George Balanchine's magical ballet BRAHMS-SCHOENBERG QUARTET. Throughout this evening's performance of the original Brahms setting, visions of Jenifer Ringer, Yvonne Borree, Wendy Whelan, and Maria Kowroski danced in my head. As is so often the case with Balanchine's ballets, the movement is so indelibly linked with the music that you can scarcely hear a bar or two of a 'Balanchine' score without envisioning the choreography.
This was my first experience with the music sans Schoenberg's additions and I must admit I missed them a bit here and there. But what a performance we were treated to: our grand quartet of artists were simply on peak form, so generous in their melodic expressions. Again the Andante was played with especial melting warmth, its poignant turns of phrase so serenely spun out for us. At the end of the quartet's presto finale, the crowd could not hold back a roar of cheers; and a genuine standing ovation sent a clear signal to the artists onstage: not just of admiration, but of love.
The Rondo alla Zingarese finale of the Brahms was a perfect segue into the 'gypsy' encore that our stellar musicians had arranged for us. Paul Neubauer suddenly materialized among the audience, serenading us with his amazingly melodious sound, while his three colleagues maintained the irresistible langorous-to-lusty rhythmical patterns that made us alternately want to swoon or dance. Fantastic!!
- Mahler Quartet in A minor for Piano, Violin, Viola, and Cello (1876-78)
- Schumann Quartet in E-flat major for Piano, Violin, Viola, and Cello, Op. 47 (1842)
- Brahms Quartet No. 1 in G minor for Piano, Violin, Viola, and Cello, Op. 25 (1862)