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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Concert Review: Hey Now, They're the All-Stars

The Brahms piano quartets at Carnegie Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
(L.-R.) James Ehnes, Leif Ove Andsnes, Tabea Zimmerman and Clemens Hagen
play Brahms at this year's Isaac Stern Memorial Concert.
Photo by Chris Lee © 2016 Carnegie Hall.
Putting together a small  group of musicians to play one concert as a chamber ensemble presents considerable challenges, not just to individual talents of the artists involved but to their abilities to make something greater out of the sum of their individual parts. For this year's Isaac Stern Memorial Concert on the great stage of Carnegie Hall, pianist Leif Ove Andsnes assembled an all-star quartet, with violist Tabea Zimmerman, cellist Clemens Hagen and violinist Christian Tetzlaff. The program: a marathon of Johannes Brahms' three Piano Quartets, each massive in scope and capable of standing by itself as a monument to the late Isaac Stern.

Last week, Mr. Tetzlaff cancelled, due to the imminent arrival of his new baby. Some things are more important than Brahms. His eleventh-hour replacement was British violinist James Ehnes. An acclaimed soloist in his own right, Mr. Ehnes' last New York appearance was with the Philharmonic, playing _ at Lincoln Center. Here, his task would be to provide the uppermost voice in Brahms' piano quartets, which are of such dense musical content that they can be thought of symphonies for just four players.

The three pieces were played in chronological order. Quartet No. 1 in G minor Op. 25 is an early Brahms work, one of the first chamber pieces published after many early efforts in the genre were destroyed. In the expansive first movement, the composer seeks to solve the musical problem of setting the piano, a percussive instrument with a wide range, against the strings. The contrast between rhythm and melody is what drives the music forward. Mr. Andsnes led off the scherzo movement (here marked as an Intermezzo) that lead into the deep and profoundly moving slow movement.

This was the first real highlight of this concert, as the little group combined to create a sense of profound serenity in the music, reaching through the notes and bars for a satisfying emotional truth. The fast finale found Brahms indulging in his love of European ethnic music, with its upward runs for the strings and pell-mell rhythms for the piano evoking a wild, celebratory energy that challenged the players and invigorated the audience.

The Quartet No. 2 in A Minor follows the No. 1 in the Brahms catalogue, with the two works having consecutive opus numbers. Together, they were Brahms' introduction to the audiences of Vienna and were met at their premieres with a mixed reception. Op. 26 is one of the longest Brahms chamber pieces, nearly an hour. It moves over less troubled waters than its brother, but still offers considerable rewards for listener and players alike.

Mr. Andsnes led here, with a stately theme that was echoed by the slow entry of cello, viola and violin in that order. The motto theme received a thorough working over in the long developmental section, allowing all four players to shine as the piano argued its musical point against the commentary of the three string players. This work also featured an early appearance of the Brahms "chorale", a motif throughout his career that echoed the music of the Lutheran church. The slow movement, a rondo had a mood of joy shot through with melancholy comment from the cello. Those clouds lift in the last two movements, a light-footed dance movement and another sonata-shape for the profound finale.

The second half of the concert was shorter but most satisfying, a performance of the C Minor Quartet which completes the set. This work had a long and difficult genesis, beginning life on paper before its older brothers but waiting many years before Brahms would remove a movement and add two more to complete the work. Here, it proved to be worth the long gestation, with its sighing, chromatic "Clara" theme and a grim, Beethovenian determination to triumph over adversity. The real triumph was that of these four players, creating this great music together in the kind of magic that only happen at an institute with the resources of Carnegie Hall. 

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