Last summer I missed Ilya Yakushev’s debut at Maverick Concerts, which I heard was a great success. Sunday afternoon, September 2, in a Prelude Concert, Yakushev got to show off some of his best qualities in Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit. It wasn’t a flawless performance. Some of the difficult repeated note passages failed to sound properly (a problem, Yakushev said later, with the Yamaha’s action). Some of his phrasing could have been more elegant. But his dexterity and color still won the day in this impressive performance, bringing a kind of tonal beauty and variety that are rarely heard these days. He also took a daringly slow tempo for the almost static “Le Gibet” and managed to sustain it.
The Jupiter String Quartet is now 11 years old but was making its Maverick debut. Webern’s Langsamer Satz (“slow movement”), a student work, gives presenters a chance to put a much feared composer on the program without scraping the audience’s ears. But the music really doesn’t amount to much, except some Mahlerian gestures. The Jupiters played it with good tonal variety and sustained its phrases. If the musicians didn’t convince me that it’s a masterpiece, that’s probably not their fault.
Nobody needs to be convinced that Beethoven’s “Harp” Quartet, op. 74, in E Flat) is a masterpiece. The Jupiter Quartet, not complacent at all, was swinging for the fences. Its playing was dramatic, with big contrasts, and so daring that the end of the first movement sounded a bit scrambly. Obviously the players weren’t staying within a comfort zone. Their gambles paid off, though, with strong characterizations that were just on the safe side of exaggeration. This risk-taking is my kind of Beethoven playing.
I’m not sure why Yakushev got to play Bizet’s seldom-heard Premier Nocturne to open the second half of the program. The selection seemed a bit out of place. But it was a chance to hear a piece of rare but worthwhile music, and Yakushev sustained it with beautiful tone.
You and I know that the performance of Franck’s Piano Quintet which ended the concert was probably put together when the pianist and the quartet got together early in the weekend, since they haven’t been touring together. But it didn’t sound like that, at all. The Jupiter Quartet obviously has quite a range of expression, since its Franck didn’t sound much like its Beethoven. For all the chances taken in Beethoven, the playing was still consistently disciplined. In Franck, however, they went all-out, displaying passion, passion, and more passion, well integrated and balanced with Yakushev’s equally outgoing playing. Since this piece was supposedly Franck’s tribute to his mistress, and I’ve long felt that it sounds drenched in sex, this was an admirable performance style, giving the piece its best chance of success with the audience. Unlike Saint-Saëns, who played the piano at the premiere and was supposedly disgusted with the music, Yakushev embraced it wholeheartedly. He must be an experience chamber music player, because he managed to play with great dynamic range yet never swamped the strings. I’ll be looking forward to repeat appearances by both pianist and quartet in future Maverick seasons.