Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Brahms and Dvořák Piano Quartets at the SBCMS

Johannes Brahms in 1855.

Antonin Dvořák in 1882.


Thies Consort, South Bay Chamber Music Society, Pacific Unitarian Church, Rancho Palos Verdes

Robert Thies.
In her program notes for the December SBCMS concert, Dr. Boglárka Kiss referenced the intensive study Brahms made in the 1850s of Schubert’s chamber works. Robert Thies, in his spoken introduction to the Piano Quartet in No. 2 in A major Op. 26, which filled the first half, echoed her view that this piece in particular is indebted to Schubert’s example, in its melodic expansiveness and more “pastoral” nature than Brahms’ other two piano quartets. (All three of them were conceived close together in the years following the death of his mentor Schumann in 1856).

It was easy to catch another Schubertian fingerprint in the very first bars, where the piano alone introduces a lyrical, meditative oscillation which, like the unassuming openings Schubert makes to some of his late, great masterpieces, at first glance seems ill-suited to be the structural mainstay of a long and complex movement. But Brahms marks this first theme very carefully—Allegro (but non troppo), and forte (but poco)—and Mr. Thies got it exactly right: enough decisiveness to indicate that a major work is indeed under way, but retaining a clear-eyed, bagatelle-like innocence.

Roger Wilkie.
The ‘cello, viola and violin progressively join the piano, and thus united, the Thies Consort (its other members Armen Ksajikian, ‘cello; Brian Dembow, viola; and Roger Wilkie, violin) maintained a blend of decisiveness and breadth throughout that first movement, with the development appropriately bolder and more dynamic without sacrificing weight—perhaps there could have been a little more rhythmic and textural pliability as Brahms’ cleverly prepared recapitulation hove into view.

In his introduction Mr. Thies also drew attention to the slow movement’s emotional arc, most likely memorializing Schumann’s death. This Poco adagio begins (on this occasion not particularly slowly) with a dream-like rocking motion in eighth notes on the three strings, muted, but after increasingly ominous, arching piano arpeggios, erupts in a passionate descending outburst, led on the piano with almost scarifying tragic weight by Mr. Thies. In the final stages of the movement, this same descending melody is played instead by the strings, now unmuted, in octaves, and the contrast in effect was like a bridge of light thrown across a gulf of darkness.

Armen Ksajikian.
Brahms follows these two large movements with an equally expansive scherzo, which in scale far exceeds any others that he wrote, whether chamber or orchestral. The Thies Consort’s performance, with all repeats intact, lasted fully 12 minutes, and at their fairly measured tempi came across more as a quietly implacable juggernaut than a pastoral intermezzo.

Brahms’ finale is almost as substantial: the players dug into its Hungarian-tinged Allegro opening theme with much gusto, and as the movement progressed, made plenty of dynamic contrast between the returns of that rondo theme and the intervening episodes. The movement concludes in joyous release, but along with all the chunky, gruff heartiness, there was a sense here of it being hard-earned.

Maybe it always ought to feel that way in such an epic work as the Piano Quartet No. 2, but with greater familiarity (this was, apparently, the first time the Thies Consort had tackled it), future performances might become a little more spontaneous and less solidly conscientious. Also, though it would have pushed the playing-time to well over 50 minutes, I wish they’d repeated the first movement exposition. It contains such a wealth of thematic material that it needs a second hearing to get listeners’ heads around it and so be better armed to appreciate the subtlety of what Brahms does with his themes in the rest of the movement.

Brian Dembow.
Maybe it was the Consort’s greater familiarity with Dvořák’s Piano Quartet No. 2 in E-flat major Op. 87, B.163, or its more transparent scoring, or simply being only two-thirds the length of the Brahms, but their performance of it—which formed the second half of Robert Thies’ insightfully planned program—was noticeably more relaxed and airborne.

They clearly relished the opening’s bold immediacy, which leads to first and second themes as straightforwardly memorable and clearly contrasted as those of the Brahms are complexly allusive and interwoven (maybe the clarity of his exposition’s structure was why Dvořák did not mark a repeat). And at the other end of the movement their skill rendered with exquisite clarity the wonderful scoring where, Poco sostenuto e tranquillo, the violin and viola exchange quiet tremolando reminiscences of the main theme against pizzicato ‘cello and soft, deep octave pedals on the piano.

It would need a long essay to describe all the glories of this score and how the Thies Consort together and individually rose to them. To take just a couple of examples, Mr. Ksajikian’s playing of the first theme of the slow movement had all the songful depth of feeling it needed, while Mr. Wilkie gave his lead role in the impassioned central section every bit of the fortissimo pesante emphasis that Dvořák marks.

The third movement’s first section became a dreamily nostalgic amalgam of quasi-Viennese waltz and gypsy melancholy, with Mr. Thies’ piano doing a perfect impression of a plucked cimbalom, after which the much faster trio section appropriately cleared the palate before the return of that ear-tickling dulcimer sound. Then the finale, which took off like a Falcon 9 and executed such an exhilarating flight path to its perfect touch-down seven minutes later that it would be churlish to mind the shedding of its exposition-repeat booster… 

All through this was a glorious performance of one of the many masterpieces from Dvořák’s maturity. Having unavoidably missed the second program in Robert Thies’ first season as SBCMS Artistic Director, I was delighted to catch this one. The website lists the varied goodies he has programmed for the remaining four concerts; you can download the complete schedule in .pdf form here. As the program notes for SBCMS concerts are, unfortunately, still only available online, those for this concert and its two predecessors are here, here, and here


South Bay Chamber Music Society, Pacific Unitarian Church, Rancho Palos Verdes, 3pm, Sunday, December 2, 2018. Photos: Robert Thies: artist website; Roger Wilkie: Press-TelegramArmen Ksajikian: Los Angeles Chamber OrchestraBrian Dembow: Pittance Chamber MusicBrahms: Wikimedia CommonsDvořák: Wikimedia Commons.

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