On the title page you should show a head with a gun aimed at it…. I’ll send you my photo. So famously joked the oedipally inclined Brahms to his publisher about the Piano Quartet in C Minor, Op. 60. It certainly is ablaze with anguish. It also is modulated and fiercely controlled as only Brahms can do, it seems, at least when you’re in his grip: urging, then constraining, then more urging. The first movement smites like almost nothing else in music, harrowing the soul (Richard Buell’s descriptors), but does so very personally. It proclaims disorder and early sorrow, surges, then reflects. The remainder, Scherzo, Andante, “comfortable” Finale, has similar effects, full of allusiveness, restless and conflicted key changes, soothings, passions quiet and the opposite, passionate renunciations, recurring intensity always managed with freedom by the highest disciplined mastery. The work just ends, extinguished. Brahms drafted it around age 22, unseatedly in love with the 14-years-older Clara Schumann, wife of his now suddenly insane mentor Robert, and resolved it over the next two decades.
The Boston Chamber Music Society has set the local Brahms standard for 30 years. Last Saturday at MIT’s Kresge Auditorium pianist Mihae Lee, violinist Yura Lee, violist Dimitri Murrath, and cellist Ronald Thomas gave a performance of the C minor piano quartet that was incendiary. It sounded unimprovable. From the opening bare octaves and signature descending “oh, woe” sighs (appropriated from Beethoven’s Hammerklavier sonata) onward, the playing, individual and ensemble and in all other respects, transfixed the small audience. M. Lee was powerful at the keyboard, as some are not (she sometimes tends to overdo it, reported longtime BCMS concertgoers, but here was unerring in judgment and technique alike). Y. Lee played with the sweetest precision. Murrath is simply a beautiful violist, and if he can be said to stand out, don’t take that the wrong way. Thomas anchored all as he has for years, but with unusual delicacy and little digging.
Back to this unendingly rich music: even with fatalistic renunciations leading perhaps to serenity, there remain by the end some undecided, yet-to-be-resolved states. The previous large-scale sectional harmonic shifts have increasingly sounded unsettling. The first movement contains most everything as to mood and motif and rhythm, and exhausts us, even as more turbulence is yet to come. Ahead, more wistfulness will throb. The concluding movement returns all to more-seismic, perhaps tragic conditions. By these BCMS masters, two of them newcomers, this Finale got a blistering, driven performance, without letup. It was all one could do to hold on. When it was over and the applause started, I was actually a little surprised that the four stood, meaning were able to stand.
My soul thus harrowed, I had some trouble concentrating on the Sergei Taneyev String Quintet in C Major, Op. 16. Take this report with salt. Taneyev (1856-1915) is touted as the Russian Brahms by BCMS and probably others. He now has a long Wikipedia page, although I recently helped edit a large classical encyclopedia and he ain’t in it. I found this 1904 piece not unlike work from the New England Romantics Foote, Chadwick, Parker, and the rest, and I also heard sounds of Verklärte Nacht from a few years prior. But the structure and argument remained unconquerably dense to me, aimless, gear-shifting, clotty. BCMS veteran and elegant violist Marcus Thompson joined the three Brahms string players, with Giora Schmidt subbing in as lead violin, so much to the manner born that it sounded as if he’d had months of notice. While his work was phenomenal, all of them played the dickens out of this lengthy, and to me tedious, work. They regularly found good fits, created dramas, clarified thick polyphony, made section breaks and endings where needed. The second movement Adagio got treated with refinement and expressivity. Clearly I need to hear more Taneyev, and this piece again, although I would do so chiefly out of duty.