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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats."
Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, since 2007. All written content © 2014 by Paul Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Concert Review: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Brahms

The Emerson String Quartet (and friends) play Carnegie Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
"We are laughing, and we are very good friends": The Emerson String Quartet.
(L.-R.: David Finckel, Philip Setzer, Eugene Drucker, Lawrence Dutton.) Photo by Lisa-Marie Mazzucco.  
In light of the damage done to New York and New Jersey by Hurricane Sandy, the closure of Carnegie Hall in late October and early November seems a relatively minor effect this catastrophic storm. However, the venue was closed not due to flood damage but from the danger poised by a dangling multi-ton crane boom,  that dangled from One57, the new luxury skyscraper being built on W. 57th St. (right across the street.)

On Monday night, Carnegie Hall opened its 2013 schedule with the first make-up concert of the year, featuring the sturdy Emerson String Quartet and special guests in an exploration of the chamber music of Johannes Brahms. The vast spaces of the Isaac Stern Auditorium became suddenly intimate, as the rapt audience focused on these complex pieces, striving to penetrate the inner thoughts of this notoriously private composer.

In the first half of the program, Philip Setzer played the "first" violin part. (He alternates with fellow violinist Eugene Drucker. (The Emerson men play standing except for cellist David Finckel, a policy they adopted in 2002.) The first thrill of the night came when the main theme coalesced in the first movement, led by Mr. Finckel's cello. The Andante came in at a quick walk, carrying the listener safely through its turbulent middle section.


Deceptively simple melodic ideas and radical rhythms are prevalent in the third movement, which forgoes the usual Scherzo for an 18th century style minuet. The middle section was played with broad, bold strokes. The finale had the four players alternating descending lines in short melodies that recombined into the longer principal theme.

The Second String Sextet featured guests Paul Neubauer and Colin Carr on viola and cello, respectively. The four movements of this massive work are symphonic in scope, and yet use this unusual chamber music format to its fullest advantage. All six musicians worked as a harmonious whole, with the doubled cellos and violas interweaving melodic lines below the soaring violins.

The sextet format is unusual in chamber music. Here, the form is an ideal playground for Brahms' musical imagination, and allowed violist Lawrence Dutton considerable time in the limelight. At one point in the first movement, the players are split into two evenly matched (if unconventional) string trios playing in opposition to each other. In the last movement, five players take pizzicato parts, providing a steady Italianate accompaniment to the solo violin line. This was Brahms at his most operatic.

For the second half of the concert, the ensemble was joined by Yefim Bronfman. Before them, one of Brahms' most famous chamber creations, the Piano Quintet, which also saw Mr. Drucker move to the first chair. Despite occasional erratic tempos and some late cues between the five players, this was a bold, exciting performance. Mr. Bronfman played with great subtlety, weaving his keyboard figurations into the fabric of each movement. The Emerson players positively bathed in the heady waters of Brahms' musical inspiration, exposing the shifting textures and raw emotion written into the unsettling final movement.
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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.