IN: Reviews

Mellow-Shocking-Mellow, and More

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Michael Brown (file photo)

Last Sunday afternoon’s concert at Maverick offered a feature which music director Alexander Platt told us had been given at the series in earlier years: “After the Concert.” It must have been well earlier, as I’ve been attending this series since the early 1970s and have never experienced it. Pianist Michael Brown played a very substantial encore. (Even if it made me late for dinner, I was pleased to hear it.)

The Jupiter Quartet has performed at Maverick before and this performance was altogether as satisfying. The individuals seem to aim for the sound of single 16-string instrument, so uniforms are the their tone and ensemble. This is not the only good way to play string quartets, but it certainly was effective in Mozart’s Quartet in A, K.464, one of the six great Haydn Quartets. That one instrument sounded very sweet and mellow without compromise in articulation. Clear, strong rhythm throughout brought the music to life.

Mozart to Shostakovich came with a shocking turn. Maverick this season is presenting the four 1960s quartets Shostakovich wrote, a reminder that this music needs to be heard more often. The Quartet No. 11 (1966) is highly compressed, in seven brief movements played without pause. Although it was written in memory of Vasily Shirinsky, a friend of the composer and second violinist of the Beethoven String Quartet, for whom Shostakovich wrote most of his quartets, this work is generally far grimmer than a standard elegy. The Jupiters played it with unremitting intensity. Even so, the sudden outburst which begins the third movement Recitative stunned in its fury and power. I don’t recall having been so frightened by anything a string quartet has played before, even this work. It was a memorable performance.

Selecting Brahms’s Piano Quintet in F Minor to follow made great sense.  It’s dramatic-enough music but still a good deal mellower. I was enjoying the propulsive approach that the Jupiter with Michael Brown (in Maverick debut) employed, but shortly into the first movement I realized I wasn’t hearing the textures the way I expect. The piano wasn’t drowning the strings out, but its sound got muddied by excessive sustaining pedal. This problem continued throughout the long piece, and despite the players’ basically lyrical attitude I wound up somewhat disappointed. It would have been much more satisfactory with less pedal.

Jupiter String Quartet

The “After the Concert” was a half-hour variations set by the unfairly neglected Russian Nikolai Medtner. Medtner, who proved he was a virtuoso pianist through his recordings of his own music and of Beethoven’s Appassionata Sonata, was close to Rachmaninov, who sponsored some of Medtner’s tours. Medtner’s Second Improvisation for Piano, Op. 47 (an odd title for a set of variations), from 1926, had enough similarities to Rachmaninov to be noticeable. But Medtner casts his net more widely, bringing in episodes which sound more like Prokofiev and even including a variation, Humoresque, which is clearly based on ragtime. All credit to Brown for offering this to us. Also to Maverick tuner Ray Johnson for a piano staying in tune all the way up the keyboard. I think (again) that Brown’s performance would have been even more effective with less pedal, but I’m not complaining about such a generous gift.

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.

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