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Cloud Eight

New York
Weill Recital Hall
03/15/2002 -  
Franz Joseph Haydn: Quartet Op. 54, # 2
Franz Schubert: Octet

Charles Neidich (clarinet)
William Purvis (horn)
Marc Goldberg (bassoon)
Leigh Mesh (bass)
Brentano String Quartet
Mark Steinberg and Serena Canin (violins)
Misha Amory (viola)
Nina Maria Lee (cello)

One of the many qualities which were absolutely amazing about the genius that was Franz Schubert was his ability to master a form or genre even on a first and only try. The Octet grew out of the tafelmusik tradition and immediately takes pride of place among the other 19th century improvements on an 18th century self-deprecating tradition engendered by household servants forced to dine below the salt. Its instrumentation is almost the same as the Beethoven Septet (Schubert adds a second violin) and is identical to the Spohr. In form and structure, it mirrors the Mozart and foreshadows the Brahms serenades, but towers over all in its essentially symphonic eloquence. A work this beautiful and important deserves a great performance. Although there was much to admire last night at the Weill Recital Hall, the general level of play was a considerable step down from the appropriate mountaintop.

It was difficult for me to decide what this concert actually was supposed to be. With the participants seated four to a side like combatants in a debate, it seemed less a blending of musicians of equal talents and more of a didactic demonstration of mature equanimity sticking it to youthful enthusiasm. Unlike the Marlboro concept, there was little sense of camaraderie between elders and acolytes, or was this simply a less than satisfactory attempt at total integration of styles and levels of energy? In the event, the phrasings of Charles Neidich (the de facto concertmaster of the graybeards) were such the superior of those of Mark Steinberg as to make the string quartet seem deficient in its interpretive powers. The very idea that they were a quartet, rather than simply four of the eight communicants, formed an impediment to proper listening. Curiously, it was only in those moments, such as the andante of the final section, when the four are purposefully set apart for melodic presentation, that this rendition worked well. The reading as a whole was haunted by imprecise entrances and really only gelled properly in the third and fifth movements. William Purvis, an exceptionally fine horn player in the main, experienced an entire month of bad nights in the first movement alone, a nightmare of poor articulation that left him visibly shaken. This is not to say that there were not many individual flashes of fine play from various quarters, but the élan of the totality was often enervated by a nagging feel of disunity. It was as if this were an interim rehearsal of the piece: much promise was hanging about but still needed a good deal of fine tuning to make its presence known.

The younger ensemble began the evening with a perhaps too spirited traversal of the Haydn. Once we were able to hear them perform Schubert, it was obvious that they do not hear much stylistic difference between the two, which would account for the undisciplined and overly Romantic gestures in this solidly Classical piece. However, within the anachronistic interpretation, the quartet as a whole shows much talent, the overall blended sound in fact quite impressive. There were quite a few flatted errors of enthusiasm, as befitted an ensemble on its way up the chamber music ladder, but an unacceptable number of instances of ghostly harmonics, the first violinist and cellist not yet cured of the bad habit of lingering too long on an individual string. The entire evening would have made for a fine out of town performance but, in this hallowed hall, the decidedly unprepared nature of the finished product was disappointing indeed.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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