Pianist Gilbert Kalish and oboist Stephen Taylor joined the Jupiter Quartet on October in a sold-out concert of Mozart, Webern, Ives, and Brahms, bringing some of the high color and deep shadows from the brilliant autumn afternoon into the dimly lit Tapestry Hall at the Gardner Museum.
The opening work was the Mozart Quartet in F Major for oboe (Taylor), violin (Meg Freivogel), viola (Liz Freivogel), and cello (Daniel McDonough). It’s often said that Mozart’s music is operatic, and in this case that was certainly true; the strings discussed, laughed and generally carried on in the first “act” in response to the oboe. Meg Freivogel led this merry band perfectly, with every eighth note played with meaning and inflection. Stephen Taylor speaks Mozart fluently, and in the second movement, he spun a beautiful sound high above the strings, artfully spanning expressive leaps of two octaves, but always sounding like a singing voice. In the last movement when the oboe suddenly has to fit four beats of fast 16th notes in the space of the ongoing 6/8 rhythm that the strings are playing, the resulting (controlled) chaos sounded as though he just impulsively had to show off his instrumental “chops” and break away with some frenetic virtuoso riffs, which he did to great effect. It was a thoroughly engaging and delightful performance.
Nelson Lee and Gilbert Kalish performed the Largo for violin and piano by Charles Ives. This music begins very intimately, and both Kalish and Lee played with sensitivity and beautiful color. The opening violin line arches high and Lee made the leap with catlike grace and aplomb (even though he admitted later that there were some “scary” leaps in the piece, especially at the very beginning). Lee always enters completely into whatever music he plays, and to hear him is like being in the presence of the spoken word. He’s eloquent, whatever the style or period of music. And Kalish is the partner every musician hopes to have — a pianist who reaches over to hand you a phrase, to pick up your sound and transform it. However, when the music became loud and dissonant, the balance didn’t seem to work. The piano swallowed up the sound of the violin until you could see Lee playing but you couldn’t hear him. Perhaps this reviewer was sitting too close, or perhaps this piano (which seems bright) should have been on half-stick. Or perhaps Ives wanted that effect. At any rate, the mass of sound was a successful foil for the return to tonality and the touching sweetness of the major “cadence” at the end of the work.
Two early pieces for cello and piano by Anton Webern, played by Kalish and Daniel McDonough followed. These were written when Webern was 16 and they are short tonal, lush, romantic works that one wished lasted longer. (Later in life Webern may have left tonality behind, but he continued to write short works.) McDonough had the music in front of him, but never looked at it, playing “by heart” in every sense of the word. He plays with tremendous variety of color and intensity, using many different speeds of vibrato and bow so that each phrase is perfectly shaped. Kalish is a pianist of subtle color and phrasing, and he and McDonough wove these slow, rich songs between them. Autumnal light, leaves falling slowly.
In the final work, the Brahms Piano Quintet in F Minor, op. 34, the Jupiter Quartet were all together for the first time that afternoon. This quartet has evolved into a musical entity that has unanimity of color, direction, tone and purpose; but more, they individually and as a unit become the music, seeming to set aside their discrete identities. And Kalish, whether he is playing alone, with just one other musician, or with a larger ensemble, is “always about the music” as one listener said afterwards. It was a great match. The Brahms demands total rhythmic integrity at the same time as expressive flexibility, and both burdens were met. The players brought out the small gestures as well as the overarching, powerful lines. The intensity of the players and unanimity of their interpretation didn’t let up for a moment, and it was perhaps the most compelling and exciting Brahms quintet this reviewer has ever experienced. From the way the audience responded, they seemed to have come to a similar conclusion.
In the interest of full disclosure, the Jupiter Quartet took part in my DVD, “At the Heart of Chamber Music.”