Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Mature Brahms, youthful Mendelssohn at "The Interludes"


Los Angeles Ensemble at First Lutheran Church, Torrance

… or maybe not so much? In his informal but informative remarks before the Los Angeles Ensemble’s performance of Brahms’ Piano Quartet No.3 in C minor, Op.60 at the March “The Interludes” afternoon recital at First Lutheran Church, Torrance, the Ensemble's violist Tanner Menees outlined the work’s long and complex gestation. Despite its “mid-period” opus number and completion in the mid-1870s, the quartet’s origins went back two decades to the 22-year-old composer’s involvement with Robert and Clara Schumann at the time of Robert’s mental illness and Clara’s becoming, of necessity, the family’s vital lynchpin. 

The Los Angeles Ensemble: l-r Bingxia Lu, Joanna Lee, Tanner Menees, Sung Chang.

The complex ties of Brahms’ esteem for Robert, love for Clara, and sense of obligation to both left their mark on the music he was composing at the time, and though such earlier versions that the Piano Quartet No.3 went through from 1855 are now lost, the final work remains something of a hybrid, or rather, as Brahms wrote to a close friend “a curiosity – perhaps an illustration for the last chapter about the man in the blue coat and the yellow waistcoat.” At the time this would have been an obvious reference to the eponymous hero of Goethe’s hugely influential novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, who at the end shoots himself due to his love for a married woman whose husband he admires… 

Katharine Hepburn as Clara Schumann and Robert Walker as Brahms, with Henry Daniell as Liszt,
from the 1947 movie “Song of Love.” 

The Piano Quartet thus comprises, on Brahms’ own testimony, a first-movement Allegro and second-movement Scherzo reworked from 1855-56 originals, and a third-movement Andante and Allegro comodo finale newly composed in 1873-74. Though there is an audible feeling that the work falls into two halves, the wonder is that ultimately the whole is so integrated and its emotional progress so sure, though in this case the superbly committed account by the Los Angeles Ensemble was as powerful advocacy as could be imagined. 

From the emphatic piano octave and falling two-note sigh on the strings (easy to hear, as some have opined, as “Cla-ra, Cla-ra”), that open it, the first movement is as full of passion as the Scherzo is relentlessly agitated. Then with the third movement comes consolation, opening with one of the greatest and most moving ‘cello solos in chamber music, which Ms. Lu played with just the right blend of unhurried warmth and sensitivity, but no attempt to overstretch beyond its Andante marking. And the finale? This is one of those movements that always seems to tease as-yet-unrevealed depths, its ambiguity blending forthright forward movement (here with the long exposition repeat observed) with turbulence in which anxiety and regret seem mingled, and its abrupt ending with two cut-off forte chords failing to disguise the “all-passion-spent” coda that precedes them. 

Felix Mendelssohn at age 12 in 1821:
Drawing in oil by Carl Joseph Begas.
No such ambiguities haunt Mendelssohn’s Piano Quartet No.2 in F minor, Op.2, which opened the recital. But “youthful”? Mendelssohn was one of the most remarkable musical prodigies who ever lived, if not the most remarkable, and the completion of this work at the age of 14 followed that of much other music, including chamber works, several singspiels, concertos, and no less than 12 symphonies for strings. 

Tightly organized and totally self-assured technically, the Piano Quartet No.2 is in its entirely different way as driven a minor-key piece as the Brahms, conveying the sense of a composer who knew exactly what he wanted to say and how to say it (as my wife murmured to me immediately after the conclusion, “Mendelssohn was already there”). 

The work does, however, have a piano part that is torrentially full of notes, with busy figuration for pages on end, and so any performance stands or falls by the pianist’s ability to cope with everything the youthful genius throws at him. Fortunately, Mr. Chang was fully up to the challenge, clearly articulating his part from the first entry, and the strings were fully his match, often playing with very little vibrato to maintain their clarity at the fast speeds. If anything, the Ensemble’s energy increased as movement succeeded movement, so that the Allegro molto vivace finale became an irrepressibly playful moto perpetuo. With all repeats intact, it was a performance to cherish. 

Not content with delivering two substantial works for a purportedly short afternoon concert, the Los Angeles Ensemble added an encore, appropriately from what is generally regarded as the first significant work for the piano quartet medium, Mozart’s K.478 in G minor from 1785. Its finale was delivered as captivatingly and exuberantly as everything that had gone before. 


“The Interludes”: First Lutheran Church, Torrance, 3.00pm, Saturday, March 17, 2018.
Photos: Los Angeles Ensemble: website; Movie still: Courtesy Radio Alicante; Mendelssohn: Wikimedia Commons.

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Unknown said...
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thedentist said...

The still scene from Song of Love is incorrectly captioned: the third person is NOT Paul Henreid as Robert Schumann, but instead Henry Daniell as Franz Liszt. (I presume the same error - now reported - on the IMDb website may have been the source of the confusion.)

David J Brown said...

Thank you! Now corrected... DJB

thedentist said...

Happy to see the caption has been updated. Keep up the good work!