String Quartet in C minor, Op.18/4 [Alianza]
Piano Quintet in F minor, Op.34 [Frank & Tokyo]
Octet in E flat, Op.20 [Tokyo & Alianza]
Alianza Quartet [Sarita Kwok & Lauren Basney (violins), Ahyoung Sung (viola) & Dmitri Atapine (cello)]
Tokyo Quartet [Martin Beaver & Kikuei Ikeda (violins), Kazuhide Isomura (viola) & Clive Greensmith (cello)]
Claude Frank (piano)
Reviewed by: Gene Gaudette
Reviewed: 1 October, 2007
Venue: Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York City
Carnegie Hall’s “downstairs” venue, Zankel Hall, has just commenced a fifth season of eclectic music and performance fare. This smaller hall seats around 600 people, and its acoustics are far drier and more analytical than the famous upstairs space, now known as Stern Auditorium — but very well suited to smaller ensembles. “Yale at Carnegie Hall,” features both faculty and resident artists from the renowned University’s very fine graduate music program.
The young Alianza Quartet was first up with the fourth of Beethoven’s Opus 18 quartets. Already Beethoven was breaking from the thrall of the Classical style, incorporating traits which characterize his mature music: dissonance that punctuates the harmonic structure, sudden dynamic contrasts, and the first signs that he was pushing traditional structure well beyond its ‘acceptable’ boundaries. The Alianza started off with precise and clean playing and elegant phrasing (something one would expect from a quartet mentored by the Tokyo String Quartet) — music-making that was far too polite at first, but gradually began to show real character and humor by the end of the opening movement’s development. I could carp about less-than-pristine ensemble and a tendency to rush, but this quartet won me over with its rock-steady intonation, burnished sound and lively, characterful playing. I especially liked the tricky Andante scherzando second movement played at a tempo more propulsive than usual and the Allegro finale was played with real relish.
The second work was Brahms’s formidable Piano Quintet. Claude Frank is one of the great piano and chamber-music pedagogues, teaching at both the venerable Curtis institute and at Yale. This evening he had two major factors working against him. The first was a piano that was in no mood to play high overtones (I am surprised that a better-sounding instrument was not available); the second was a plethora of dropped notes (more than I have heard from this formidable musician) and a somewhat limited dynamic range. Nevertheless, there were long stretches of sheer magic from Frank, who clearly loves this work. Particularly memorable was the sheer beauty with which he played the opening theme of the Andante second movement. The Tokyo String Quartet, an indisputable chamber-music institution played with trademark elan and elegance; the notoriously difficult cross-rhythms among the strings and piano, was particularly impressive, as was the spirited finale that Frank and the Tokyo played with visceral brio and bravado.
Following the intermission, the two quartets joined forces to play one of the most entertaining works in the chamber-music repertoire, Mendelssohn’s Octet. There was remarkable unanimity throughout — not only of musical purpose but also of ensemble precision. Much of the work is written as a ‘double quartet’ and the distinctive sound of the Tokyo Quartet — aided and abetted by a “matched” set of Stradivarius instruments known as the “Paganini Quartet”, once owned by the violinist-composer – contrasted well with the slightly drier, deeper and sometimes astringent sound of the Alianza. This turned out to be much to the advantage of the music, allowing much of the detail that tends to be submerged in more homogeneous-sounding groups to come to the fore. The work’s melodic interplay still gives a good deal of exposure to the first violin part, and the Tokyo’s first violinist Martin Beaver played exquisitely — but never at the expense of his colleagues. All in all, this was a superb performance.