Beethoven: String Quartet in F Minor, Op. 95, "Serioso"
Purcell: Chacony in G Minor, Z. 730
Britten: String Quartet No. 2 in C Major, Op. 36
Schumann: Piano Quintet in E-flat Major, Op. 44 - Yefim Bronfman
Two days after a big prestigious symphonic concert in Carnegie Hall's Stern Auditorium, I was back in the same hall on Tuesday night with my friend Dawn for a smaller but still prestigious chamber music concert featuring the distinguished Emerson String Quartet and a very special guest in the equally distinguished pianist Yefim Bronfman for a program presenting the classical fare of Beethoven and Schumann, and some really exciting works tied to our beloved Benjamin Britten.
I've always found the Stern Auditorium too cavernous for small ensembles, but I guess it is a small price to pay for popular artists who have outgrown the intimate and oh so cool Zankel Hall. And frankly, one would have been hard-pressed to complain considering the premium seats we got to sit in... or the performance we got to enjoy.
It is impossible to go wrong with Beethoven's œuvre, and the quartet got everything right with the man's "Serioso" string quartet. After a gripping opening, the four musicians, three of whom were standing up, impeccably maneuvered around the piece's various intricacies and turbulences. This was the first time I had a chance to hear them with their one-year member, cellist Paul Watkins, who was - and still is - the first change ever in the group's composition in 37 years, and the result was decidedly impressive in tightness and cohesion. Under their informed and confident bows, Beethoven sounded very much alive and well, as he should.
A short Baroque detour was next with Purcell's Chacony in G Minor arranged by Britten. There was a lot more of the former than the latter in this lovely interlude, probably a telling sign of how much Britten revered Purcell.
Premiered at London's Wigmore Hall in 1945, on the 250th anniversary of Purcell's death, Britten's String Quartet No 2 is a true marvel of brilliant inventiveness that includes a wide range of sounds and moods, from spontaneously attractive to unapologetically quirky, from happily free to intensely restless, a short second movement that sounds like an action movie soundtrack, some stunning lines for the viola in the thrilling Chaconne, and so much more. The technically exacting and emotionally engaging performance of the quartet could not but make this live introduction to the small masterpiece a memorable one. In fact, the experience turned out to be so astounding that we did not even manage to get out of our seats during intermission.
After so much excitement, Schumann and his Piano Quintet came out rather conventional, which is not a totally fair assessment given the undeniable quality of the work and of its rendition. With Yefim Bronfman taking up piano man's duties, the slightly bigger ensemble did full justice to the popular quintet, which often sounded like an spontaneous ode to unrestrained joie de vivre.
Time flew as we were having fun and the hour was getting late, but the five gentlemen still kindly acknowledged our resounding ovation with a beautifully serene Adagio from Brahms' Piano Quintet in F Minor. A very generous and much appreciated parting gift before we reluctantly went back to reality.