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Two Bites at the Golden Apple

New York
92nd St. Y
05/08/2002 -  05/11/02
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Trio K564
Leon Kirchner: Trio No. II
Hikaru Hayashi: Intermedio
Johannes Brahms: String Quartet # 2; Piano Quintet

KLR Trio with Joel Smirnoff and Samuel Rhodes
Tokyo String Quartet with Max Levinson

Carnegie Hall used to enforce a policy that a particular work of music could not be programmed more than once per season, ostensibly to insure variety but more likely designed to protect its primary tenant in those days, the New York Philharmonic, from being outplayed by more eloquent visiting orchestras. The guideline, as it should be, is long gone, but was on my mind this week as the 92nd Street Y presented the same chamber work as the featured centerpiece of concerts by two of its most illustrious ensembles. Both the resident KLR trio and the principal guest Tokyo Quartet presented evenings anchored by that most symphonic of small compositions, the mighty Piano Quintet of Brahms. It is simply too tempting not to make comparisons, what with only two nights separating these performances.

Brahms humbly scotched plans for a fifth symphony because the combination of his four plus four concerti and a requiem totaled the magic number nine and he did not want to appear to be attempting to outdo the memory of the sacrosanct Beethoven. He did, however, endow many of his chamber pieces with both a symphonic structure and harmonic language, creating in the process the thickest writing for small groups to date. In fact, only Schoenberg, not coincidentally the orchestrator of Brahms’ Piano Quartet # 1, and Max Reger composed such weighty chamber opera, at least before the academic serialism of the American 1960’s. Brahms’ quintet even contains a full blown and cathartic false ending much more suited to the grosse than the kleine hall. In the pantheon of chamber music, this is Jove.

In the KLR concert, after a stately and intermittently humorous version of one of Mozart’s most delightful mature works, passion was the order of the evening. The Kirchner Trio No. II is the piece that Ravel would have written if he had taught at Harvard in the 1990’s. Romantic in the extreme, it explores the outer reaches of sonic ardor in a decidedly impressionistic manner, a softening of the dodecaphonic militant in the face of the eternal feminine. If one is fond of the idiom, then this is an intriguing work (my companion reacted to it as if it were fingernails on the blackboard), and was infused by the originally commissioning trio with an intensity of performance rare for compositions of any era. Brooklyn native Kirchner was on hand for a smattering of adulation.

Appropriately, the Brahms commences with a passage for piano trio that was lovingly presented this night before the splendid participation of the two members of the Juilliard Quartet made for a taut, gritty sound so perfect for this ultimate exploration of the creation and subsequent release of tension. It was a particularly tense first movement for Mr. Laredo, who popped a string midway and had to transpose his part both mentally and physically without hesitation. The entire performance dwelt in white knuckle territory, a palpable sense of peripeteia and the dramatic always in the forefront. This high torque background made the beautiful solo passages, especially for cello, stand out as even more gorgeously flowing and vulnerable, the child on the verge of being abducted. Joel Smirnoff was a noticeably self-effacing second fiddle, purposefully intoning his melodic soli without vibrato the more to highlight Laredo’s warm utterances in reprise. Von Buelow’s concept of “the three B’s” is especially apt when discussing this opus, the technique of almost orgasmic management of volcanic turmoil learned directly from Beethoven and Bach. The levels of energy and detail of the third movement were especially exciting and that marvelous trap door ending was rhythmically precise, the syncopation dizzying, the dance wild and free (there is moment in this finale where the second violin drops out and those Gypsies from the G Minor Piano Quartet make a brief cameo appearance). There were some passages where accuracy was sacrificed for emotional content, especially by Mr. Kalichstein, but the transporting totality more than made up for any technical lapses. After the last few measures were so crisp and forceful in their insistence and so expert in their metrical complexity, one member of the audience couldn’t contain himself and began to applaud before a decent interval of framing silence could respectfully emerge. Oops, that was me!

This reviewer, among others, has pointed out that there is something amiss in the Tokyo Quartet this season and the group has now begun to address the problem, asking relatively new first violinist Mikhail Kopelman to step down in favor of Canadian Martin Beaver. The issue is primarily a stylistic one, Kopelman’s effusive Slavic brio a bit much for this previously smoothly blended ensemble. Certainly the sound of the group is nowhere near as unified as in their heyday; one wonders, however, how many degrees of separation can the quartet withstand (cellist Greensmith is also new) and still keep any sense of identity (as Jerry Seinfeld suggests, in the era of free agency in sports, one really roots only for the team jersey now, not for the players). Leaving almost immediately, Mr. Kopelman finds himself at this concert in the uncomfortable role of ex-boyfriend at the wedding.

Actually, airing their differences seems to have been healthy for the group. This night the blending was no longer an issue, the sweet and gentle Second Quartet beautifully infused with that sunny, bucolic tranquility unique to this composer so fond of the summer stroll (unlike Mahler, Brahms’ vacations led to peaceful creations). Even in the inconsequential Hayashi (the “pizzicato polka” at a rave), the sonorous combination was seamlessly strong.

The performance of the quintet was the polar opposite of that of KLR. Here control was the key to the interpretation, each repetition of a staccato beat emphasized powerfully, almost martially (I’m guessing that this was another example of Mr. Kopelman being outvoted in the interpretive conference). After a bit of initial rushing ahead, Max Levinson proved to be an eloquent driving force, each note clean and precise, strong and willful: of the five players, Mr. Levinson was the one who compared favorably to his counterpart from the group of the previous concert. Precision, however, is not an emotion and perhaps the best way to delineate the differences between these two readings is to think for a moment of the styles of the cellists. Clive Greensmith’s graceful elegance lent an air of dignity to the proceedings, but is the antithesis of the earthy sensuality of Sharon Robinson, whose huge tone was ultimately much more satisfying for such a deeply felt maelstrom of the heart (and, not to kick him when he’s down, but Kopelman is light years away from Laredo’s exquisitely aching portamento). The third and fourth movements were exciting in a more cerebral, symmetrical manner in the Tokyo rendition, the final coda an impressive deconstruction, regal and organic, with an accurately cascading final rhythm, but saddled with an unwelcome ritardando, whose effect was to veer the drama off of the visceral pathway. Certainly a legitimate and ably executed interpretation, but not the equal of its zaftig predecessor. I probably would have enjoyed this last Tokyo Quartet performance in this particular configuration more had I not had that other flower’s bouquet still fresh in my nostrils: such propinquity only leads to invidious comparison. Perhaps that old Carnegie policy wasn't such a bad idea after all.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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