Over the weekend of August 21/2, Maverick Concerts hosted two performances by musicians who have been in the music news recently. Jazz pianist Fred Hersch was recently interviewed on “Fresh Air” about his experiences overcoming serious illness. The Ebène Quartet had received a rave review in the New York Times as recently as Friday for a performance at the Mostly Mozart Festival that included two of the three works on its Maverick program. In both cases the musicians justified their celebrity while at the same time leaving one listener with serious reservations.
Fred Hersch has been a major name on the jazz scene for quite a few years. His medical odyssey has not obscured the main reason he is so well known — for the quality of his playing. In a solo concert at Maverick on Saturday evening, Hersch immediately impressed me with his sound. He plays with a richness, beauty, and variety of tonal quality that are beyond the abilities of most classical pianists these days. That beauty of sound sustained me through a fairly long program that I found otherwise only partially rewarding.
Hersch definitely has his own style, although it does seem to derive in part from that of Bill Evans. He played music by a variety of composers, including Monk, Golson, Gershwin, Wilder, Strayhorn and others, and made those tunes difficult to tell from his own original compositions. There’s nothing wrong with that. Monk made the standards he played sound like Monk originals. He also plays with impressive command, including sophisticated harmonies and rhythms and even considerable counterpoint. The problem for one listener is that he makes everything sound so romantic and pretty that after a while I was wishing he would bang his elbow on the keys, or do something ill mannered. Not a chance. In the end, it was a lovely evening but too lovely for my taste. This isn’t really a value judgment, though. Hersch does what he wants to do extremely well and most of his listeners obviously love it.
The Ebène Quartet, competing with heavy rain, immediately made a strong impression with its opening work, Mozart’s Divertimento in D, K. 136. The impression it made on me was not favorable. After its cellist told us that this was simple music, the quartet proceeded to load it down with expressive details, including sentimentalization in the first movement’s development, a huge ritard defacing the Andante, and overdone dynamics in the concluding Presto. This is early Mozart, not late Beethoven, and I felt the music sank under the weight of the performers’ emphases.
I had somewhat similar reservations about the approach to Debussy’s String Quartet. The piece seems to be overplayed these days, so I can understand why an ensemble might want to do things differently than the norm. But the way detailing was applied to this relatively gentle music seemed overdone and precious. The second movement was overemphasized, the third not just “doucement expressif” but over-sweetened. There is no doubt the Ebène Quartet was doing what it wanted, and the group’s coordination was impressive, but I was not happy with the results.
After these interpretive miscalculations, one might have worried about what the group was going to do with — or to — Beethoven’s Quartet in C Sharp Minor, Op. 131, music as great as anything in the string quartet literature. But here, the extreme expressive and technical demands of the music apparently dispersed the group’s impulses to exaggerate things. The extremely expressive quality of the slow fugue that opens this work was entirely appropriate (Beethoven wrote “molto espressivo” and meant it). In other parts of the music, the exaggerations were the composer’s, faithfully executed by the musicians. The huge sound that began the finale might have seemed too much for most music, but not for this piece. This powerful interpretation of Beethoven’s masterpiece made up for problems in the first half of the concert and then some. I hope the Ebène Quartet learns to play more modest music more modestly, but it does know how to take on the big ones.