Brahms: Piano Quartet No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 25
Brahms: Piano Quartet No. 2 in A Major, Op. 26
Brahms: Piano Quartet No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 60
Never catching at least one recital by Christian Tetzlaff and Leif Ove Andsnes when they were regularly appearing in the US together has long been one of the biggest regrets of my concert-goer's life. Back in those days I lived in DC and they never made down there. When I finally decided to make arrangements to go see them in New York, they stopped touring in the US as a duo. Although I have enjoyed many terrific performances of theirs throughout the years, I have never heard them play together.
This season, however, it looked like I was finally getting a chance to get as close a possible to those missed opportunities with a special performance by the dream team of Christian Tetzlaff, Leif Ove Andsnes, Tabea Zimmermann and Clemens Hagen of an exciting program consisting of all three Brahms piano quartets for the Annual Isaac Stern Memorial concert last Saturday in, appropriately enough, the Stern Auditorium. Needless to say, the man who saved Carnegie Hall deserves only the best.
Except that on Wednesday, I got a voice mail from Carnegie Hall announcing that due to the imminent birth of his child, Christian Tetzlaff had to withdraw from the concert and James Ehnes would fill in for him. As much as I was grateful for a violinist of James Ehnes' impressive caliber to be willing to step in at the last minute for such a daunting marathon, I could not help but still seethe at the thought of what I was missing... again.
But at least the rain had stopped, I had an amazing seat and my friend Paula happened to sit nearby. Getting to catch up with her – as well as enjoying almost three hours of glorious music – eventually managed to make (almost) everything alright.
Brahms' Piano Quartet No. 1 came out bright and strong with its well-balanced structure, radiant melodies and gorgeous lyricism, the popular Gypsy-style Rondo taking off with a delightful free spiritedness that would have made any Hungarian composer proud. Even better, it only took a few seconds to realize that héro du jour James Ehnes was fitting right in the flawlessly tight ensemble, his smoothly expressive violin blending seamlessly with the soulful cello and the sensitive viola as they all played around the masterful piano.
After intermission, we eagerly moved on to Brahms' lesser-known Piano Quartet No. 2, which sumptuously unfolded for close to one hour with the scope and complexity of a bona fide symphony. It is, however, a safe bet to assume that the unusual length of the piece did not even register with anyone as the musicians took total control of the magnificent composition, using their much celebrated virtuosic skills to take us through all its brilliant twists and turns.
As much as the first two piano quartets did not give quintessential perfectionist Brahms too much trouble, he was back wallowing in self-doubt with his Piano Quartet No. 3. All the self-inflicted torture paid off though, as I found this last piece the most memorable of the evening, all dark undercurrents, relentless turbulences and an unmistakable feeling of personal tragedy. It was Brahms at his most emotional, almost having a Tchaikovskian moment, and it was the musicians at their most extraordinary. Isaac Stern would have been pleased.