Britten: String Quartet No. 1 in D Major
Brahms: String Quartet No. 3 in B-flat Major
Schumann: Piano Quintet in E-flat Major, Op. 44
Last Tuesday night was opening night at Carnegie Hall, and all three concert halls were at long last buzzing with excitement again. After a bit of an inner conflict, I had decided to skip the glittery big bash featuring our neighbor to the south, the highly capable Philadelphia Orchestra, their unstoppable music director, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, and their special guest, the dainty pianist Hélène Grimaud, for the more subdued, but just as appealing, concert downstairs in Zankel Hall featuring the much-lauded Dover Quartet and the reliably terrific pianist Emanuel Ax.
Beside the sterling reputation of the musicians and the wonderful intimacy of the venue, the ultimately decisive factor had been the fact that the program included a string quartet by Benjamin Britten, an intriguing composer whose œuvre I have always admired without knowing very well. So I eagerly joined the masses for the sold-out performance.
The last important work that Benjamin Britten wrote while living in the United States, his String Quartet No. 1 establishes itself as fundamentally experimental right from the very beginning with ethereal sounds from the restless violins that would now and then be punctuated by seemingly random pizzicatos from the intruding cello. And off we went into the expansive, highly intricate first movement. It was followed by a rough-around-the-edges scherzo and a delicately melancholic adagio, before the composer’s keen interest in rhythms found another vivid expression in the highly complex and downright electrifying last movement. The razor-sharp and crystal-clear performance of the Dover Quartet was a thrilling as a Carnegie Hall season-opening number ought to be.
After Britten’s engaging quirks, we moved on to the solid confine of more traditional fare with Johannes Brahms’ String Quartet No. 3. As winningly sophisticated as anything the incurable perfectionist has ever written, the composition also expresses an irrepressible joie de vivre, which is much more unexpected on his part. But hey, we happily took it all in, especially since quite a few passages highlighted the fabulous skills of Milena Parajo-van de Stadt, the quartet’s fierce and fearless violist.
After intermission, Emanuel Ax joined the quartet for Robert Schumann’s genre-defining and universally beloved popular Piano Quintet in E-flat Major, whose last noted appearance in pop culture was in Yorgos Lanthimos’ deliciously wicked period piece The Favourite. Still conventional enough to be dismissively labelled as “too Leipzigerisch” by no less than Franz Liszt, but indiscriminately admired by pretty much everybody else, Schumann’s Piano Quintet is a beautifully melodic gift that keeps on giving, and it sure did on Tuesday night as the five musicians treated the audience to an effortlessly virtuosic and genuinely warm-hearted performance of it.