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Brian Taylor is a musician and writer. He resides in New York City.

REVIEW: Piano Quartets by an Esteemed Ensemble Radiate Heat

REVIEW: Piano Quartets by an Esteemed Ensemble Radiate Heat

JANUARY 30, 2019

BY BRIAN TAYLOR

Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center’s “Esteemed Ensemble,” comprised of CMS co-artistic directors pianist Wu Han and cellist David Finckel, along with violinist Daniel Hope and violist Paul Neubauer, presented a great diversion from the punishing winter weather with an evening of romantic piano quartets in their home Alice Tully Hall on Tuesday night. Music like this doesn't get played enough, and the heat radiating from the stage smoldered.

Photos by Tristan Cook

Photos by Tristan Cook

As chamber music goes, the piano quartet is a winning genre, and many great composers found inspiration writing for the combination of violin, viola, cello, and piano. Or is it a string trio, plus piano? Or a piano trio, with a violist along for the ride?

The vivacious Wu Han introduced the concert and spoke about CMS's upcoming 50th anniversary season. The program then began with the Piano Quartet #1 in A Minor of Joseph Suk. His Opus 1, this is the work of a promising young composer studying with great Czech composer Antonin Dvořák. (Suk would later go on to marry Dvořák's daughter.) The second movement in particular, a tender melody introduced in the cello, atop a pulsing piano accompaniment, with aching harmonic tension, made a strong case for the piece. 

Johannes Brahms's Quartet No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 60 is a finer work, and its story is richer, too. Brahms, the gossip goes, was in love with the older Clara Schumann, the wife of his friend Robert. But his love remained unrequited, beyond friendship, and the piece’s slow movement, especially, is thought to express these feelings. The ensemble's mastery of chamber playing was on display here. The remarkable thing about this performance was how the notes on the page were transformed into direct musical expression, the textures of Brahms's thick score were clarified, the melody always popping out, with a directness and sense of spontaneity.

Wu Han is an especially ingratiating collaborative pianist, the demanding piano part sounding as smooth as silk in her hands, with a wide range of attack, pointed or warm, never upstaging the string players.

Photos by Tristan Cook

Photos by Tristan Cook

Following intermission, Dvořák's Quartet No. 2 in E-flat, Op. 87, served as a good anchor for the evening. Dvořák's substantial piano quartet is the size and scope of a symphony, with demanding writing for each of the instruments.

Daniel Hope's sunny timbre and verve, throughout the evening, was a beacon. David Finckel's honey toned cello playing was communicative, as in the second movement's sublime opening theme. And on the viola, Paul Neubauer fleshed out the inner voices with definition, always ready to interject a hearty melodic answer in the free flowing conversation. An invigorating Bagatelle of Dvořák, lighter in mood than the dramatic quartet, was a delightful encore.

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