Schubert, Tan, Brahms. . . Sandwiching a new piece between two classics—or, in this case, Romantics—is a common practice among programmers, the implications of which often make for lively debate. It could, however, simply be to create contrast, as was most likely the case for the concert on June 21st at the Shalin Liu Performance Center. The Jupiter String Quartet, who had performed just two days earlier, and pianist David Deveau, violist Andrés Cárdenes, and cellist Anne Martindale Williams, who had performed the night before that, all came together for this program in a kind of culmination of the week’s events.
The concert opened with Deveau joining two members of the Quartet, Nelson Lee and Daniel McDonough, in the Notturno in E-flat Major for piano trio by Franz Schubert. Originally conceived in 1827 as the slow movement of a four-movement work, this piece contains all the subtly bold harmonic turns that characterize late Schubert. A somewhat rambling middle section and an over-reliance on arpeggiation in the piano, however, make it a challenge to deliver, one which the musicians met with graceful expression. An unintended, though illuminating, consequence of the performance was to illustrate that Schubert had a different type of piano in his ear: despite Deveau’s best efforts at creating the finespun touch needed to balance the strings, especially in the gentle, pastoral textures of the first section, the Center’s Steinway D was just a bit too big for the music. Nonetheless, the overall charm of the work made it a lovely opening to a program of heavier fare.
Following the Schubert was a three-movement string quartet titled Life of Wayang by American composer Su Lian Tan, completed in 2002 and originally written for the Takács Quartet. The composer’s own rhapsodic program notes about the piece invoke connections between it and wayang kulit shadow-puppet theater of Indonesia. The link is more a conceptual than a musical one: aside from a rebab-like violin II solo in the opening of the first movement, there were no obvious techniques associated with traditional gamelan repertoire. Even the South-East Asian scales that Tan mentions are buried deep in a dense harmonic language reminiscent of some early 20th-century European quartets in which late-Romantic chromaticism started drifting into atonality. The formal ideas in the work, though—perhaps most clearly expressed in the title and structure of the first movement, “Gods descend”—are clearly and dramatically influenced by the type of epic storytelling found in wayang theater. The Jupiter made the most of the challenging yet skillfully string-friendly writing, especially in the second movement, “Ballade”, where the lush colors combined with the ensemble’s sense of lyricism resulted in some truly captivating moments. The final movement, “The Chattering Strings”, is possibly a bit too serious for its own good; but the performers were able to find a playfulness in it that made for a satisfying conclusion to what was, at times, a perplexing piece.
For the second half of the program, the Jupiter was joined by Cárdenes and Martindale Williams for a generally rousing performance Johannes Brahms’s Sextet for Strings in G Major, Op. 36, completed in 1865. The ensemble’s approach to the first movement seemed somewhat heavy-handed and not quite conducive to lifting the sunny, tumbling gestures out of the admittedly thickset textures; the playing was far more effective in the darker-hued development section. Similarly, the delicately thorny opening of the third movement—a theme and variations that is one of Brahms’s most astonishing accomplishments—seemed to give the performers a bit of trouble; however, once they arrived at the third variation with its more direct scoring, the playing was confident and expressive. In fact, the performance as a whole excelled most in those places where bigness of sound was a major driving force, such as the trio of the second movement, which was delivered with brilliant energy and momentum. Fortunately, the final movement is chock full of bold Brahmsian Schwung. The group seemed to have the most fun here, playing with a skilled abandon that brought out the best of the music and the audience to its feet.