Five Musicians in Need of Coaching
92Y Kaufmann Concert Hall
Johannes Brahms: Piano Quartet No.1 in G Minor op. 25
Franz Schubert: Piano Quintet in A Major “Trout”, op. 114, D.667
Musicians from the New York Philharmonic: Sheryl Staples (violin), Rebecca Young (viola), Eileen Moon-Myers (cello), Timothy Cobb (double bass) – Benjamin Grosvenor (piano)
B. Grosvenor (© Patrick Allen)
In the spring of 2006, the venerable and beloved by all audiences worldwide Beaux Arts Trio, in their 50th Anniversary Season, were giving their farewell tour and for the last concert in New York City they came back to the Metropolitan Museum, a place where for decades they delighted New Yorkers with their art. The program of their final concert was the two Piano Trios by Schubert. Customarily, when you ask someone for a favorite moment of a performance, he or she will reminisce about some thundering chords, fantastic blaring brass, the bravura of a pianist or violinist or perhaps a beautiful solo melody played by some instrument or instrumentalist. The normal, traditional, memorable moments that we all harbor. To this day, for me, 12 years later, this magic moment appeared when Menahem Pressler, then already in his 80s, was accompanying his partners melodies with the rippling triplets in the piano part of the Trio in E flat. This moment demonstrated and typified for me my long held belief that the intelligence, musicality and wisdom of a musician – not necessary a pianist – can, among others, be gleaned from the way he or she plays triplets. Yes, that’s my own “musicality test” that rarely fails me and, needless to say, serves perhaps only in the mind of this particular beholder.
So you, dear reader, will by now probably think that the group I heard at the 92 Street Y on April 10th, which consisted of five superb instrumentalists, brought back those old, fond memories. Alas, such was not the case and the only similarity was the sheer amount of triplets that cried out for Maestro Pressler, who, if he were coaching this group, would have made sure that they are executed properly. No, the program, which featured two major works in the chamber music repertory was not ALL about the triplets, of course. But the triplets are a salient feature of the first movement in the “Trout” Quintet and the way they were played both by the pianist and the string players partnering him left me longing for a real musical, deeply felt interpretation, where the notes played possess some meaning and count for something.
One hastens to add that what we heard that evening was generally speaking superb instrumental playing. The demanding piano part in the Brahms Piano Quartet in G minor received about as good a traversal as one could hope. All the notes were there and the notorious Finale Rondo alla Zingarese: Presto was exciting, stimulating, and exhilarating. There were notable and often beautiful instrumental contribution from the string players, and yet I only rarely felt that our musicians really cared about the music let alone about the shape of the phrases.
One may raise questions as to the way the early Brahms works should be interpreted and there’s no easy answer to that inquiry. Should one just play those works, such as this quartet by the then 23 year old Brahms, as a carefree, jaunty, optimistic and energetic work of a prodigiously gifted composer influenced by Beethoven writing a symphony for four players? Or should one see, even in those early scores, through the prism of the later ones, more personal pain and sorrow? What bothered me a bit in the performance by the musicians from the New York Philharmonic was a general sense of squareness, an almost metronomic treatment of the pulse, and a lack of inflection, of giving each musical phrase a distinct shape. Was Brahms, in his Opus 25, too young to have his phrases caressed, to have some repose or a moment of breath? And again, those triplets: in the concluding part of the opening Allegro, the piano comes with the melody played in triplets, which the composer marks as espressivo and I envision as full of yearning, but it seemed that our young pianist was not all that concerned. One other characteristic of the performance, more often heard during a typical piano recital, rather than among string players, was a tendency to slightly increase the tempo when the dynamics increased: to my ears, a more successful way of building culmination or tension would be to hold the tempo back. Again, one of the little imperfections not quite expected considering the fantastic players involved and one that a good coach would have easily corrected.
Said coach might also have to ask for a little more declamatory manner of playing, a tad more of lingering at the beginning of some ardent phrases, and a bit more inflection/nuance. The second movement of the Quartet suffered from the same problems and there, in addition, I noticed some awkward shifts in tempo and not particularly subtle phrasing. The pervasive feeling was that of rushing and a lack of repose. The ardent moments, when the floating duplets float over the triplets, were rendered in an almost perfunctory, commonplace and unloving manner. Yet, the piano showed some gorgeous, gossamer effects and magnificent control, both in the second movement as well as the third (Andante con moto) with its martial middle section.
Perhaps it is nothing more than creeping old age that sometimes makes us think that everything we hear is too fast. The Rondo was on the surface incredibly exciting as the group took it at the very fast clip and what we got as a result, in addition to excitement, was a hectic quality and a lack of clarity in the string instruments, who simply couldn’t articulate at that speed. At the same time I don’t think I have ever heard a better played piano part in that movement and Mr. Grosvenor’s ability to negotiate all the notes with this astonishing clarity was miraculous. What purpose it served is another question. Yes, it is marked Presto, but even in that fast tempo one would wish for a moment of repose, relaxation and breath. I missed that Hungarian/Gypsy element – the sense of swagger but also wistfulness. I wished for a little dancing, not only breakneck whirling. There was not a moment of doubt that Grosvenor is a wonderful, prodigiously gifted, very musical pianist, except that in the realms of chamber music he needs to become more of a thespian or to play in the company of more thespian partners.
Schubert wrote his Piano Quintet on request from the cellist Paumgartner, who must have known the Johann Nepomuk Hummel work for that unusual combination of piano, violin, viola ,cello and double-bass. What’s more interesting is that the same Paumgartner requested a variation movement based on the apparently already well-known song Die Forelle. Schubert delivered what was asked and rather slyly, as the last variations inserted the very song on which Schubert based the movement, this time with the string instruments doing the vocal part and the piano part intact. As far as the future popularity of the work was concerned we know the rest: Schubert’s piano quintet became one of the most beloved and best known works of the chamber music literature and repertory.
To come back to my introduction, the piece happens to start from...yes, you guessed, the triplets in the piano part. And there are a lot of those rhythmical figures throughout the work. And they need to be played with some meaning. Unfortunately, they rarely were. Which is why the otherwise perfectly acceptable, adequate, excellently executed performance became nothing more than acceptable, rather than memorable and meaningful. Again, I admired the piano contribution of Mr. Grosvenor who played just splendidly. His finger-work throughout was exemplary as was the technical execution of the whole group. Again, as in the Brahms, I missed the feeling of little more Gemütlichkeit (geniality, friendliness) and a sense of breathing. The best movements were the last two: the variations and finale (Allegro giusto). And this time – would you believe? – the audience did NOT erupt in bravos in the middle, as it almost always does. The fact is that Schubert, by writing two identical halves for his finale, misleads his listeners with the first fake coda.
The audience received the group from the NY Philharmonic and their British young guest very enthusiastically and I am sure the older players must have enjoyed musical company of a pianist who just day earlier was their soloist in the Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 3. The very same incredible clarity, incisive attack and superb articulation, in addition to his natural musicality, brought quite superb results in the aforementioned Beethoven. If my words of criticism may seem harsh, I wouldn’t even for one moment imply to my readers any doubts about my great admiration for this immensely talented young musician: he is one to watch and I would not bother to call him up-and-coming. Let there be no doubt: he is already on the top. Let’s hope that one day he’ll be a top chamber-musician as well.