To saturate an entire recital with the chamber works of Johannes Brahms can present ample opportunity for showcasing the man’s kaleidoscopic compositional reach, especially if you pair works from the start and end of his life. However, in this recital, the artists made a deliberate choice to intertwine two works extremely close in opus–letting us judge for ourselves how varied or consistent Brahms can be within one era of his life.
Piano Quartet No. 2 in A Major, Op. 26
Piano Quintet in F Minor, Op. 34
The Takács Quartet, together with Garrick Ohlssohn, makes for an angelic, powerful collaboration. Each player has their own distinctive approach and emotional universe that they seamlessly entwine with the others’. Despite the often stark stylistic differences between players (which will be explored later), the goal of the piece is consistently reached–in color, intent, pacing, and shape.
The recital opened with Brahms’ Piano Quartet No. 2 in A Major, Op. 26. Perhaps Brahms’ longest chamber work, it is a challenge for any performer to retain consistent focus, both from themselves and the listener. Takács and Ohlssohn had absolutely no trouble with this. The work was written in 1861 and performed for the first time in November of 1862 by the Hellmesberger Quartet, with the composer himself on the piano. Structurally, harmonically, and in its contour, it is known to have great inspiration from the composer Franz Schubert.
The first movement, allegro non troppo, opened with an honest sensitivity from the piano–creating an ample warmth for the strings to enter. When the quartet overtook the opening idea from the piano, the conglomeration of inherently varied styles in the quartet was obvious. The first violin (Edward Dusinberre)–a thick, longing sound. The second violin (Harumi Rhodes)–like an echo of the first, yet with a more quivering, surfaced sound–emerging as if from a wave, every now and then. The cello (András Fejér), a warbling, yet also consistently steady sound–a whole, brimming sound. The viola–like a caricature: the sound permeates his instrument and body as if it is on fire. While other quartet members were more physically introverted in their approach to the instrument, Richard O’Neill, the violist, allowed his face and body to share the phrases as strongly as his instrument does. A steady lyricism is maintained throughout the movement, similarly done in Schubert’s later works. Ohlssohn has a gargantuan, yet somehow effortless, approach to large sound. In the climactic sections, there was always a collective rise, with Ohlssohn as the steady perpetrator of the massive crescendos.
In the second movement, a timid intimacy overtook the stage. The strings muted themselves, and were able to mesmerize with a shared tenderness. The piano, like a gentle giant, lulled the audience with watered arpeggios underneath the quartet. Ohlssohn’s ability to turn the character of the entire piece on a dime, and lead the strings with him immediately, is akin to the skills of a magician from the greatest of storybooks. The third movement was a brilliant showcase of the group’s mastery of rhythm and tempo, while still retaining seamless transitions of character among all instruments–as if they are one mind with many facets of imagination. In the fourth movement, composed of similar gypsy-like music also found in the finale of Brahms’ first piano quartet, a sustained energy is retained throughout. The artists were presenting an air of nobility in the movement while underneath subduing a bubbling fire. A Socratic discussion was occurring among the strings in this movement–with each player contributing their own individual ideas, while still retaining a tight aura of collective intent. There was great care in selecting the true high points of the piece, and the ensemble arrived at each one with matching speed, color, and pacing.
The Piano Quintet in F minor, Op. 34 is an epic novel of magnanimous proportions. It is undoubtedly one of Brahms’ greatest works. The masterpiece received lots of rewriting and editing before it settled into its final form. It began as a string quintet with two cellos in 1861. After dissatisfaction, Brahms destroyed this version and rewrote it as a sonata for two pianos. Eventually, after several performances and the advice of his friends Clara Schumann and Joseph Joachim, it was published as a piano quintet in 1865. The first movement is a wondrous image of thematic variation. Every motive and idea is laid out in the first eight bars of the piece, and is developed, spun, twisted, inverted, augmented, and diminished throughout the entire movement. The passing of lines between the strings and piano was magically seamless. The counterpoint presented by Brahms in the strings was achieved effortlessly, without succumbing to the thickness of the piano texture. The movement is dark in color throughout, but the players were able to fabricate multitudes of layers to this darkness. The second movement–gentle, simple, light–showcased Ohlssohn’s fairy-like touch. The ability to achieve anywhere from the thickest of sonorities to the most precious of atmospheres, as he did in this movement, is a testament to his rare mastery of touch. The quartet’s skill for collective tenderness was obvious here. In a moving transition, the ensemble–like magicians–overtook the gentle aura they wove with a suspenseful, almost sinister sound in the third movement. A sustained, devastating passion brimmed underneath a tempestuous pulse. Ohlssohn was like an anchor in the ocean, steady and strong amidst the thunderstorm thrust by the strings. The last movement truly showcased the old-world sound Takács is known for–as if they were plucked from the 19th century into our own–especially in the folk-like gypsy melody passed between instruments throughout.
It was a performance of five deeply individualistic performers, magically capable of intertwining their personal tendencies with a collective, conjoined artistic goal.
Natalie Vargas Nedvetsky is a pianist, poet, and communicator dedicated to the intertwining of words and music through creative mediums. Originally from Chicago, she studied piano performance at The Juilliard School and creative writing at Columbia University in the City of New York and is now obtaining her masters degree at The Johns Hopkins University/Peabody Institute. She has been a laureate of several major international piano competitions, and has performed across the US and Europe, in halls such as Carnegie Hall, Alice Tully Hall, Concert Noble Brussels, and more.
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