Monday, September 11, 2017

Schumann masterpiece opens the South Bay’s new season


REVIEW

First Fridays at First!, First Lutheran Church, Torrance
DAVID J BROWN

… and here we are, back for the new season! Once again, fortunate South Bay residents can look forward to no fewer than four chamber music series through to late spring 2018: “First Fridays at First” and “The Interludes” from Classical Crossroads Inc. at First Lutheran Church, Torrance; “Second Sundays at Two” at Rolling Hills United Methodist Church; and the South Bay Chamber Music Society at Los Angeles Harbor College, Wilmington, and Pacific Unitarian Church, Rolling Hills Estates. Though actually one week later than its titular slot, due to the Labor Day Holiday weekend, “First Friday” still led off the season on September 8, with a fine account of Robert Schumann’s Piano Quartet Op.47 from the Los Angeles Ensemble (Joanna Lee, violin; Tanner Menees, viola; Bingxia Lu, ‘cello; Sung Chang, piano). 

The Los Angeles Ensemble, l-r: Sung Chang, Joanna Lee, Tanner Menees, Bingxia Lu. 
If the crude but clear metric of quantity of CD recordings listed at ArkivMusic is anything to go by, Schumann’s Piano Quartet lies somewhat in the shadow of its artistic “twin”, his Piano Quintet Op.44 (45 recordings of the Quartet, 80 of the Quintet). Both were composed in 1842, and are of similar length (the Quintet a couple of minutes more if its lengthy first movement exposition repeat is observed); they share the same four-movement layout, and even the same key signature of E-flat major. Op.44 is, however, generally credited with helming a whole new compositional genre (quintets for piano plus the normal string quartet lineup of two violins, viola and ‘cello), whereas the piano quartet medium – for piano, violin, viola, and ‘cello – was already well established when Schumann came to write his own Op.47.

Schumann in 1839, three years before the composition
of the Piano Quartet: lithograph by Josef Kriehuber. 
The two works, in fact, unfold very differently from their very opening measures. Whereas the Piano Quintet’s bold unison Allegro brillante leads to expansive and immediately memorable thematic subjects, romantic and aspiring, the Piano Quartet steals in with soft piano leaps and sustained string harmonies that always sound to me rather “late Beethoven”.

A sequence of three isolated chords on all four instruments and a downward cascade of notes on the piano is repeated, and then the movement proper commences, quite quietly, with a main theme more notable for its contrapuntal layering and purposeful onward progress than the sort of instant “ear worm” quality that the Piano Quintet provides at the same point.

All this was beautifully handled by the Los Angeles Ensemble. The three strings’ opening was appropriate spacious without being particularly slow, the increase in speed was held back enough for the piano’s downward cascade to be crystal clear, and then they were properly under way with the Allegro well qualified as ma non troppo, just as the composer marks.

A clear structural difference from the Piano Quintet is that the Piano Quartet’s middle movement order is reversed, i.e. scherzo/slow movement, not slow movement/scherzo. Both works’ Scherzo movements have Schumann’s oft-used pattern of scherzo–trio 1–scherzo–trio 2–scherzo, but in the Quartet the scherzo sections are much shorter, scurrying by Molto vivace like barely-glimpsed Mendelssohnian fairies. Ms. Lu’s ‘cello and Mr. Chang’s piano duly delivered a blur of low-pitched staccato figuration, both hectic and subdued, that created exactly the right effect.

Back to those differences: in the Quintet the expansive, eloquent first movement is followed by a hushed and halting quasi-funeral march, whereas after the Quartet’s Scherzo movement – its five sections all done and dusted in less than four minutes – comes a radiant, song-like Andante cantabile. Again the Los Angeles Ensemble to my ears got it just right; not overly slow or soulful, with Ms. Lu and Mr. Menees, in particular, carrying their 'cello and viola assumptions of the main melody with discreet but radiant eloquence. The Vivace Finale was no let-down – the ball kept in the air throughout this lengthy movement, with all four players particularly relishing, it seemed to me, those passages where Schumann exhilaratingly piles up fugal entries like a river about to burst its banks.

After this exuberant performance, the Ensemble treated its audience to a substantial encore, the “Summer” movement from Piazzolla’s Four Seasons of Buenos Aires. This composer, and in particular this work, seem inescapable in CD listings and concert programs at present. I confess I’m ambivalent about Piazzolla – all too often the initial exhilaration and appeal of his music gives way to a “for-God’s-sake-can’t-he-do-anything-else-besides-tango?” exasperation, but in this performance the Los Angeles Ensemble’s skill enabled him to just about get away with it.

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“First Fridays at First!”: First Lutheran Church, Torrance, 12.15pm, Friday, September 8, 2017. Photos: Los Angeles Ensemble; Robert Schumann: Wikimedia Commons.

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