Mostly Mozart in New York – Chamber Music

Beethoven
String Trio in G, Op.9/1
Mozart
Piano Concerto No.12 in A, K414
Brahms
String Sextet No.2 in G, Op.36

Leon Fleisher (piano)

Members of the Emerson String Quartet [Eugene Drucker & Philip Setzer (violins) & David Finckel (cello)]

Jaime Laredo (viola)
Richard O’Neill (viola)
Sharon Robinson (cello)
Timothy Cobb (double bass)

“A Little Night Music”

Mozart
String Quartet in G, K387
Ravel
String Quartet in F

Daedalus Quartet [Min-Young Kim & Kyu-Young Kim (violins), Jessica Thompson (viola) & Raman Ramakrishnan (cello)]

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Reviewed by: David M. Rice

Reviewed: 24 August, 2006
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall & Stanley H. Kaplan Penthouse, Lincoln Center, New York City

An evening of well-performed chamber music at two Lincoln Center venues provided an object lesson in how performing spaces influence our perception of the music. First, in Avery Fisher Hall (which even in its “Mostly Mozart” configuration has more than 2300 seats), up to seven string players and pianist Leon Fleisher performed a programme featuring a Beethoven string trio, a Mozart piano concerto in a scaled-down arrangement, and a Brahms sextet. Later in the evening, in the much smaller and less formal setting of the Stanley H. Kaplan Penthouse, four young artists played string quartets by Mozart and Ravel.

Beethoven’s Opus 9 trios marked a breakthrough in the development of chamber music for strings, bringing to the genre a muscularity and harmonic complexity without precedent, and pointing the way toward the six string quartets of Beethoven’s Opus 18. Violinist Eugene Drucker and cellist David Finckel of the Emerson Quartet, joined by Jaime Laredo on viola, gave the G major Trio a forceful performance, with Drucker’s double stops at times providing four-part harmony, and Finckel’s cello singing out melodiously as well as supplying bass support. Yet, however powerfully played, this is essentially a small-scale work that inevitably loses an important dimension in a space as large as Avery Fisher Hall.

The performance ran an emotional gamut from the grandeur of the opening movement’s introductory Adagio, to the poignancy of the violin’s pleading cries in the second movement as the cello rumbled on unresponsively, to the witty charm of the scherzo and the playfulness of the finale. The scherzo was a particular highlight, with its stop-and-go rhythms in the first trio and rich, melodic cello line in the second standing out. The final Presto was nearly unrelentingly so as the instruments exchanged thematic material, their dense sound rivalling that of a much larger ensemble, interrupted only occasionally by gentler and more lyrical passages.

Leon Fleisher’s appearance was greeted with warmth and enthusiasm; his has been a fairly recent return to two-handed playing after a long interruption in his performing career. In the earlier of Mozart’s two A major piano concertos, he was joined by a string quartet (the three Emerson players plus violist Richard O’Neill) – a configuration which Mozart himself contemplated – with a double bass (Timothy Cobb) added to shore up the bass line and produce a moderately orchestral sound. Of the three works on the programme, the concerto suffered least from being performed in so large a hall, owing to the powerful projective capabilities of both the piano and double bass.

After the extended opening tutti, the piano made its entrance, taking and generally holding centre-stage, with the strings at times not playing at all or just sustaining a chord behind the piano’s ornamentation, with ensemble passages interrupting the piano from time to time. Fleisher played with dexterity and grace, although the cadenza seemed a bit ponderous – a fault repeated in the third movement as well.

Mozart based the second movement Andante on a theme by Johann Christian Bach, his childhood mentor, who had died at the beginning of 1782, the year in which this concerto was composed. Fleisher, employing considerable rubato, sensitively evoked the music’s elegiac character. In the concluding Allegretto, the piano and strings were more interactive than in the earlier movements, particularly in developing the middle section of the three-part rondo theme, which first appears in unison in the strings but is taken up by the piano and undergoes modulation and imitative contrapuntal treatment leading up to the cadenza.

In the upcoming New York season, Fleisher will perform this concerto with the New York Philharmonic and Lorin Maazel and also will collaborate with Laredo at Carnegie Hall in a programme of Schubert violin sonatas and a performance of Brahms’s D minor Concerto with Laredo conducting the New York String Orchestra (augmented, no doubt!).

After the interval, the three Emerson Quartet members and violists Laredo and O’Neill were joined by cellist Sharon Robinson, Laredo’s wife and collaborator in the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio, for Brahms’s G major String Sextet, which did not seem quite as badly out of place in the expanse of Avery Fisher Hall.

Laredo’s viola opened the work with a repetitive motive based on a semitone interval, creating an atmosphere of instability throughout the first movement. Against this unsettling background, Finckel’s cello stood out, playing one of the score’s many lovely melodies, but the opening motif, emphasized by ominous tremolos, persisted right up to the movement’s end. Although labelled a scherzo, the second movement initially sounded rather light and dance-like, despite its minor-key tonality, with much syncopation and counterpoint. This gave way to a gypsy-influenced trio, which returned in the movement’s coda.

The third movement, marked Poco adagio, is in the form of a Theme with five Variations, all but the last of which exhibit little of the warm and lush textures that characterise most of the sextet. The players skilfully navigated the movement’s many contrapuntal passages and then brought it to a gentle and tuneful ending. A tremolo motif opened the final movement and was soon followed by a tranquil viola theme and then a more agitated one for cello. The opening tremolo theme dominated the development section of the movement, undergoing rhythmic variation and fugal treatment, and ultimately returned in the coda.

This was an engaging performance that projected warmth of tone, yet maintained the harmonic tensions that Brahms wrote into virtually every nook and cranny of this complex composition. Although the performers were not drawn from a single ensemble, they fitted together seamlessly and played with a shared sensibility for the work’s aesthetic.

The final “A Little Night Music” recital of this year’s “Mostly Mozart” festival featured the Daedalus Quartet, an ensemble of young musicians that has achieved considerable prominence since its founding six years ago. The quartet won the Grand Prize of the 2001 Banff International String Quartet Competition and was named by Carnegie Hall to participate in the Rising Stars programme of the European Concert Hall Organisation (ECHO), with engagements at major European concert halls as well as at Carnegie’s Weill Recital Hall. It is currently Quartet-in-Residence at Columbia University and has been appointed by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center as the “Chamber Music Society Two” quartet, leading to numerous Lincoln Center appearances.

The late-night concert was performed before an audience of perhaps 200 to 250 listeners seated at small tables in a nightclub-like setting. In such close proximity to the musicians, we could not only hear, but also see and feel, every nuance from the sighing phrasing in the opening Allegro vivace assai of Mozart’s G major Quartet to the lush opening bars of Ravel’s Quartet and the vigorous, syncopated pizzicatos that dominate its second movement.

Mozart’s quartet, the first of his six dedicated to Haydn, was an apt choice to begin such a concert. With its genial G major tonality, the work maintains an upbeat mood almost throughout, with its few darker moments not persisting. The players quickly demonstrated their close rapport and careful balancing of voices and were particularly impressive in their playing of the contrapuntal finale, deftly passing the opening theme in descending sequence from violins to viola and cello, then reversing that order with a fugue subject, and then to a gentle conclusion.

Ravel, one of the most masterful of orchestrators, was no less successful in creating a wide range of instrumental colors in his chamber works. The Daedalus Quartet evoked that rich palette, as well as Ravel’s exciting rhythms, in an exhilarating performance that brought the evening to a most satisfying close.

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