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Not Yet Harnessing the Higher End


Brahms in 1853

The Sunday Concert Series at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum presented yet another edition of Musicians from Marlboro, this time in a program of Haydn, Webern, and Brahms. While instrumental playing in and of itself would qualify for an appearance on this esteemed series, harnessing the higher end of music-making fell well short of the mark. Was it not enough experience in playing together for an outcome, as one listener described it, “…all the same.”

For starters, the program for the concert as announced on the Gardner website and elsewhere was vague. Which one of a number of Haydn G Minor string quartets was slated for this concert? The listing for Webern was also incomplete, stating only “String Quartet.” Webern also has written more than one string quartet.

To continue, the program went 20 minutes past the usual three o’clock hour. In the end, either the Haydn or the  Webern did not need to be on an already heavy program. A vote goes for dropping the pre-twelve tone Webern String Quartet (1905) despite its historical relevance. Its highly chromatic pre-expressionistic bent mostly wandered about for some 18 minutes. For most, if not all, attendees, establishing a veritable context would have gone a long way.

Alexi Kenney and Robin Scott, violins, Shuangshuang Liu, viola, and Peter Stumpf, cello, opened with the music of genius experimenter and unsurpassable developer of the string quartet medium, Franz Joseph Haydn. It was his String Quartet in G Minor Op. 74, No. 3, Rider (1793).

A longer than usual fermata held up the first movement. Some cheerfulness wove in and out of an otherwise unusual energetic performance outbreak a bit foreign, it seemed, for a court composer’s inclinations. As the movement advanced it became more evident that the players were only scratching the surface of 1793 court culture and the work of a composer who was injecting fresh blood into the newly developing string quartet medium.

The second movement had moments of sincere contrast and reflective shaping, particularly with each repetition of the simple tune. With the Menuetto there was no dance tracing and the Finale: Allegro con brio provided more evidence of Musicians from Marlboro’s inexperience or, simply, lack of group preparation as an ensemble.

And that raises the question: How long have these musicians worked together?  No faulting their individual control of their own instruments; rather, for music-making, abstractionism replaced humanism, especially that of Haydn’s time, more than two centuries past. Why not find our way back there?

Zoltán Fejérvári, piano, joined Alexi Kenney, Shuangshuang Liu, and Peter Stumpf in Piano Quartet in A Major, Op. 26 (1861) by Johannes Brahms. The lidless Steinway allowed gorgeous vibrancy in softer passages but not on the other side of the amplitude spectrum where too much sound tired. As with the Haydn, the Brahms could have been delivered in Calderwood with at least a certain modicum of intimacy.

While that did not materialize—no rural images, loving tenderness, and the like that can blossom out of Brahms—instead, fast moving, big straight-out playing did. Then, when there was some expectation of jollity, as in the Scherzo opening, an almost lugubrious take by the Marlboro players surprised and disappointed.

Much appreciated cello afterglow from Stumpf did reach well into the soul of the German’s intricate chamber scoring. Kenney’s violin brilliance took an opposite stance. So, there was clearly that aspect of timbral imbalance, even disagreement.

Overall, the concert was fatiguing, even with a short-lived spunkiness of the central theme of the Finale: Allegro. As a foursome, with piano or not, this edition of Musicians from Marlboro was not quite ready for prime time and that, unfortunately, is the word having to come from this reviewer.

David Patterson, Professor of Music and former Chairman of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston, was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University.  He is the author of 20 Little Piano Pieces from Around the World (G. Schirmer).

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