At the crammed season finale at the Maverick Concert on Sunday, the Shanghai Quartet began with a startlingly blunt and powerful take on Beethoven’s Quartet in F Minor, Op. 95, dubbed “Serioso” by the composer. This ensemble is capable of refinement, but obviously the members didn’t feel that was appropriate for this music. The rough, aggressive sound of the opening seemed just right, as did the tempo adjustments used in this movement. I’ve never heard the abrupt end of this opening movement sound more surprising. The slow movement had an intensely personal quality, rudely interrupted as Beethoven wrote with his attaca transition to the third movement. The Larghetto introduction to the finale was just plain gorgeous, the coda amazingly fast and accurate. This was Beethoven playing that completely honored the individual qualities of the composer.
Krzysztof Penderecki’s String Quartet No. 3, “Leaves of an Unwritten Diary,” is also very personal music, although that personality sometimes sounds rather like Shostakovich. In a quarter hour of stream-of-consciousness, Penderecki goes in and out of tonality, often very agitated. The piece was written for the Shanghai Quartet, which celebrated it with obvious involvement and lots of viola power.
Pianist Orion Weiss arrived after intermission for three of the Chorale Preludes, Op. 122, by Brahms, his last music, as arranged for piano from organ originals by Ferruccio Busoni. Unlike Busoni’s Bach arrangements, these don’t take liberties with the original composer’s harmonies; they’re just very effective transcriptions from organ to piano. The repertoire had been planned well in advance, but these pieces made a most effective memorial for Maverick’s annotator, Miriam Villchur Berg, who had died earlier in the week. Weiss brought good expressiveness but rather gray tone.
He then joined the Shanghai Quartet for Dvořák’s popular Piano Quintet No. 2, in A Major, Op. 81, which has surprisingly been missing from Maverick for some years. The string tone for this was much sweeter than it had been in the first half, and Weiss’s sound became more colorful. The freedom of tempo heard in the first movement felt entirely apt, evoking some of the earliest recordings of romantic chamber music by 19th century performers. The folk inspiration came with notable vigor. The vivid contrast in the central section of the Scherzo, which the composer marked “Furiant” so we’d be sure to understand its folk-dance origin, made for an impressive touch. Hearing the exposition repeat in the first movement, also pleased us.
Miriam Berg, whom I knew slightly and admired greatly, was the daughter of Edgar Villchur, remembered by music-lovers as a co-founder of Acoustic Research and a frequent attendee at Maverick. When Miriam began writing program notes here some 15 years ago, I knew her as an expert in early music, which she also participated as a member of the ensemble Woodstock Renaissance. But I was surprised to see her taking on writing about broader, and for a while I watched her annotations carefully. They were always useful and extremely accurate.
After a couple of years, I started a game of “Spot Miriam’s Goof.” The first time I found an error, I wrote to her about it, adding that I was surprised to find a mistake in her generally accurate writing. She took it in good humor and we continued with the game. At the end of most seasons I would send her a note to tell her that as far as I knew she’d been perfect. Once I thought I found an error in something she wrote about Henry Cowell, but she convinced me she’d been right. Miriam was about as great an asset to a concert series as non-performer could be.
Leslie Gerber, who lives in Woodstock, New York, has been reviewing professionally since 1966, for such venues as Performance Today, Fanfare, and Amazon.com. He also publishes the Parnassus Records label.