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A Tale of Two Quintets

New York
Carnegie Hall, Weill Recital Hall
03/06/2023 -  
Richard Strauss: Metamorphosen
Johannes Brahms: Quintet in F Minor for Piano and Strings, op.34

Angela Wee, Katherine T. Fong (violins), Tal First (viola), Julia Bruskin (cello)
Met Orchestra Chamber Ensemble, Yannick Nézet‑Séguin (piano, conductor)

A. Wee, K. T. Fong, Y. Nézet‑Séguin, J. Bruskin, T. First (© Chris Lee)

It is not often that one can encounter only five days apart two different performances of one of the greatest masterworks of chamber music, both excellently performed and both offered in the same room. However, such was the case when Chamber Series of the Orchestra of St. Luke’s (OSL) and Chamber Series of Metropolitan Opera Chamber Ensemble offered the Brahms Piano Quintet in F Minor. This close time proximity provided the reviewer a rare chance of a direct comparison of two dramatically different approaches to the work that I would not hesitate to call–and this is only an opinion!–the greatest chamber music composition with piano of the 19th Century.

On paper it looked like one performance featured a world-renowned pianist, here Canadian-born Marc‑André Hamelin (referred to later as MAH), assisted by musicians from a leading New York free‑lancers orchestra; the other would feature the musicians from one of the greatest orchestras in the United States, the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, assisted by yet another Canadian-born pianist who is also their music director, namely Yannick Nézet‑Séguin (YNS).

I am not afraid to admit that before these concerts, I’d have wagered that in the first performance we would have a far better pianist, in the second most likely far better string players. As it turned out, the reality was somewhere in between. I have already described Mr. Hamelin’s & Co. performance in my review from March 1st but here I’d like to share some thoughts about the second version, which left me in awe. I think many of us think of a favorite recording of a piece of music, in other times a version of it that exists only in our minds. When confronted with a live performance, we are either swept by the vision of some formidable musician(s), or try to compare our model version to what are just witnessing.

If we were to compare those two versions of the Piano Quintet, one with Mr. Hamelin and the other with Mr. Nézet‑Séguin at the keyboard, the first would be a vision of youthful excitement, the other as seen through the eyes of a very mature Claudio Arrau, who claimed that Brahms was also mature already in his late 20’s and early 30’s. One would be driving a sporty BMW and enjoying its ability to take turns and achieve speed in no time, the other, being chauffeured in a luxurious Bentley or Rolls‑Royce.

I can’t deny that prior to this event I was scantily acquainted with Mr.Nézet‑Séguin’s piano playing, although I heard him assisting at the piano Ms. DiDonato when they presented in Stern Auditorium Schubert Winterreise. But Brahms Quintet demands from the pianist virtuoso skills and many of us in the audience didn’t know what to expect. I can’t speak for others but what I heard far exceeded my expectation. Whereas I knew that string players of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra would be excellent, the excellence and musicality of the pianist became one of the biggest surprises in my many years of attending and reviewing concerts.

Where to start? I guess for some listeners, hearing a piece of music which is extremely well known is a bit akin to judging, say, gymnastics or figure skating. We all know that there will be a number of necessary routines and our gymnast or skater will be evaluated by “conquering” each element. Here, in the Brahms Quintet, a work of which every note is known to this reviewer, I was sort of awaiting each proverbial “turn” with certain expectations and as the work progressed, more and more I was confronted with an impression that in every or almost every instance, I said to myself: they are doing exactly what I would wish to hear, sometimes hearing details that took me by surprise. With each following movement, the realization deepened that the Nézet‑Séguin& Co. version was near to my, shall we say, dream version. It was not only the excellence of playing–that is nowadays in quite sufficient supply! –but sheer musicality. There were two aspects of this unique performance: the first was that the musicians played this work with a rare, palpable joy of playing together; second, there was an equally rare sense of musicality: not merely executing the phrases, but almost caressing them. From the frequent smiles exchanged between the musicians, and it emanated mostly from the our-man-at-the-keyboard, one sensed that they really wanted to play beautifully, give the music meaning. Or I may be wrong, but the results were not. One who has ever actively participated in chamber music experience knows that it is a unique experience of creating something together, without another person dictating to you his/hers vision or without being the sole creator of the performance–a true collaborative vision. I can only speculate how wonderful it was for those players to appear as equals on the same stage with their benevolent boss.

Maestro Nézet‑Séguin–I hope I will be forgiven for not addressing him as Yannick, as unlike 500,000 other New Yorkers, we still are not pals–has a special approach to sound production. His is uncommonly warm, devoid of any harshness, plushy and yet in moments in the score calling for volume, he can also by quite forceful. He just knows how not to abuse it and maybe it is the reason that he blends so well with string players. I don’t think I ever heard the great Menahem Pressler playing Brahms Quintet (he did record Brahms piano quartets), but YNS’s sound reminded me of Pressler’s incomparable cushioned tone. In the first two movements, the Allegro non troppo and Andante, un poco adagio often seemed to caress, and cuddle the music. Speaking of the tempo markings: it impressed me greatly that in the opening Allegro, our artists kept the tempo and pulse the same throughout and luckily avoided surges especially when the music gets louder. That gave the music the sense of gravitas, profundity, and to me a sense of comfort. The Scherzo in the performance of MAH/OSL had a ferocious, unbending, exciting but also relentless quality: here with YNS and Co. the tempo was a tad more measured, much more steady and allowing for a sense of majesty. One of my pet peeves, mentioned in the MAH/OSL Mar.1 review, is the way that the triplets are often (usually?) played: they can be played as three even notes or as three enunciated notes, when the performer leans a micro-moment on the first of the notes. Sorry dear reader, if by now you are still with me, but you’d notice the difference too if you heard those little rhythmic figures played two different ways! In the marching segment of the Scherzo, the Met Players played the motif without rushing the triplet and kept the pulse steady without falling into “the louder, the faster” trap: in this listener’s ears it makes a significant difference or as the saying goes, “the devil is in the details”.

Equally impressive was the lilting Andante, un poco adagio, where one could admire the beauty of the string sound and phrasing, although here I have to observe that the passionate approach of MAH brought similar dividends. What differed between the two versions of the Finale was again a bit steadier and more controlled approach of YNS who obviously felt the unity of the tempo is of utmost importance. The Wagnerian harmonies of the introduction to the Finale, received a more luxuriant tone and color in the YNS/Met Opera group, even if neither of the groups took to heart meter marking in so‑called cut‑time, which would indicate a bit quicker pulse of the quarter note. With the YNS/Met Opera group, the Allegro non troppo of the Finale had an easy, trotting character and Ms. Julia Bruskin intoned her cello opening theme with a lovely songful manner; her solos made her a standout in many other moments of the Quintet. Each of her remarkable colleagues also shone in their contributing lines: unlike their predecessors from the OSL, here the Met Opera Orchestra players: Angela Wee and Katherine T. Fong, violins, Tal First viola and Ms. Bruskin made a homogenous group of first-rate instrumentalists of admirable musicality: I had a strong suspicion that playing with Mr. YNS must have given them great joy: their affection for music and music‑making was evident!

That last movement retained the necessary energy and Mr. YNS attacked the difficult jumps with devil may care passion. Was he as accurate as Mr. MAH? Heavens no, and I am sure that he is aware of the phenomenal piano skills of his Canadian colleague. Yet the praise I heap on him to a large degree applies not only to his ability to conquer a really difficult, demanding, unforgiving piano part, but doing it with remarkable musicality. I noticed that those hard moments he had well memorized and frankly I don’t know if one can play them without first memorizing it. I had a similar impression as respects one of my favorite interpreters of that part, the great Rudolf Serkin. Mr. YNS also values the meaning of each and every note of the score, except that unlike Mr. Serkin, he doesn’t bang or in moments of passion incessantly kick the pedal.

I have not written as yet a word on the first half of the program, devoted to a single-movement work of Richard Strauss, his Metamorphosis: Study for 23 Strings, composed in 1945. This work was inspired by the composer’s grief over the destruction of German music institutions during the Allied Forces’ attacks on Hitler’s Germany in the last 15 months of the World War II. The original title of the work was Mourning for Munich.

It is a nearly half‑hour lamentation in which a well‑known motif from the “Eroica” Symphony serves as prominent melodic material. My initial anxiety that 23 instrumentalists on this small stage will cause hard‑to‑control sonorities was quickly dispelled. To the listener who heard this orchestra play the opening of Wagner’s Lohengrin, it is obvious that its string players are perfectly able to create the most subtle, delicate, restrained sounds with chamber music clarity. YNS coaxed from his musicians lovely, ardent, engaged playing and here, in Weill Hall, he gave an impression of playing on the orchestra, molding their performance.

I should have resisted a pre‑concert reading of the program notes, which were excellently prepared by Mr. Jay Goodwin: after acquainting myself with them, I felt that sometimes it is better to know less about a work that one will listen to. Here Strauss remarks that “all that was so senselessly lost during the darkest period of modern civilization”. I fully respect the composer’s sentiments and feeling of irreplaceable casualties and loss of the opera theaters of Munich, Dresden, Berlin, and Vienna, where his father played the French horn and his music was celebrated and had its triumphs. And I was thinking about the fact that I have never met my grandparents or never had aunts and uncles because they met their end in concentration camps created by the same culture that gave us Strauss and his Metamorphosen.

Roman Markowicz



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