in: Reviews

July 17, 2010

Parkers and Wosner Play Superheated Schumann and Brahms

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While the Parker Quartet made its Maverick Concerts debut on Sunday, July 10, it is not new to the Hudson Valley. I first heard the group at the suspended and lamented Marbletown Chamber Music series. This is obviously a splendid group, made up of fine musicians who have achieved an enviable level of ensemble. It also performs a wide variety of repertoire and is obviously not afraid of challenging music. (Hear its recording of Ligeti Quartets, for Naxos.) Although I had reservations about this particular concert, they don’t diminish my admiration for the group. Still, good as it is, there are things it could do better.

The concert opened with a real novelty, Barber’s Serenade for String Quartet, Op. 1, part of the series’ summer-long Barber Centennial celebration. I’m certain I had never heard this music before. After opening with a Mozartean introduction, the music continues with about 10 minutes of slithery chromatics and pointless modulations very much in the style of Max Reger, a composer I have always been allergic to. Thank goodness Barber outgrew this type of writing. Although played with obvious dedication, the music offered me nothing but some expert scoring for strings.

For the remainder of the program, the Parker Quartet was joined by pianist Shai Wosner, who played so much as a part of the ensemble that his individual contribution did not stand out. This is not a complaint but an expression of admiration. In Schumann’s Piano Quartet in E Flat, Op. 47, the ensemble was very evocative and mysterious in the introduction to the first movement, then brought out the Beethovenian elements of the remainder of the movement. In the Scherzo, the playing was almost too aggressive, swamping the Mendelssohn style of the music with energy, but still mighty exciting. The Andante cantabile was quite lovely but perhaps a little dry-eyed for this very tender music. The finale sounded almost orchestral, with its very wide range of dynamics and expression. This was certainly not the mellowest Schumann I’ve heard, but it kept me awake.

I was a little uneasy with the balance of strings in the Schumann, and this became even more pronounced in the first two movements of Brahms’s Piano Quintet in F Minor, Op. 34. The slam-bang jet-powered reading of the first movement (alas with no repeat) sounded almost like a piano quartet, with Jessica Bodner’s viola seriously underbalanced and often barely audible. The fervent reading of the second movement had similar problems. Although Bodner was somewhat more audible in the remainder of the piece, there were still numerous moments when I could see her playing but could not hear her (from the third row of the hall).

I was impressed with Wosner’s command of the fiendish piano part in this music, and with the overall energy and focus of the interpretation, it was still somewhat unsatisfying to be hearing only 4/5 of the music too much of the time. Considering the high-powered performance style, I can’t be sure if the problem was that there was not enough viola or that there was too much of everyone else. This was an exciting concert overall, but I’m sure these musicians can do even better.

Leslie Gerber lives in Woodstock, New York. He has been reviewing professionally since 1966, for such venues as Performance Today, Fanfare, and Amazon.com. He also publishes the Parnassus Records label.

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