Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Juilliard Chamber Music: Schumann, Beethoven and Brahms

On Sunday afternoon, much. to the delight of the Upper West Side's classical music lovers, Juilliard held at Morse Hall one of its chamber music marathons, a series of recitals that stretches from noon to 9:30 p.m.  Programs are never announced beforehand and are as a result something of a grab bag.  Since I only had time to attend one performance, I chose the first and was delighted to discover the program included performances of works by three of the nineteenth century's most prominent composers - Schumann, Beethoven and Brahms

The program opened with Schumann's Bilder aus Osten ("Pictures from the East"), Op. 66 (1848), a work consisting of six impromptus for piano four hands that was here performed by Jun Hwi Cho and Zhu Wang and coached by Jerome Lowenthal.  It's of course well known that Mahler was inspired by the poetry of Friedrich Rückert, but I was surprised to learn that Schumann too had been influenced by Rückert's work, though in this case the verses were not original but rather an 1826 translation from the Arabic, entitled Die Verwandlungen von Abu Serug, of the maqāmāt of Al-Hariri of Basra. Rückert was esteemed during his lifetime as an Orientalist, but even his skills must have been taxed in preserving something of the rhymes and wordplay of the Al-Hariri's fifty poems.  What attracted Schumann to the work was the resemblance he perceived between Al-Hariri's hero Abu Seid and the fourteenth century German prankster Till Eulenspiegel.  Schumann didn't attempt to set the verses themselves to music; his impromptus are better viewed as his impressions of these verses, but they do succeed in conveying to the listener a sense of eastern music.

The next work was Beethoven's String Quartet No. 9 in C major, Op. 59, No. 3 (1806).  After having complained just last week of my disappointment at having heard only one movement of this piece performed at another Juilliard recital, I had an opportunity on Sunday to hear the entire work. Commissioned by the Russian ambassador Count Andreas Razumovsky, not only a wealthy patron but also a talented amateur violinist who maintained his own string quartet ensemble, the three quartets were the first written by Beethoven during his middle period and marked a sharp break from the staid Haydnesque classicism of the six Op. 18 quartets even if the composer did retain the Classical four movement structure.  Even on first hearing, it's evident that Beethoven was here attempting to break new ground.  In the C major, for example, he began the first movement with a stately introduction, marked andante con moto, that bore no relation to the fast paced allegro vivace that followed.  The breadth and complexity of all three quartets was such that critics compared them to the Symphony No. 3, the Eroica, completed only two years before. Connoisseur that he was, Count Razumovsky must have been astounded when the works were presented to him.  He had exclusive rights to the pieces for a year, and they were premiered privately by his own ensemble with the redoubtable Ignaz Schuppanzigh performing on first violin.

The quartet was performed by Heewon Koo and Ann Cho, violins, Sequoya Sugiyama, viola, and Mizuki Hayakawa, cello, and was coached by Timothy Eddy.

After a ten minute intermission, the program closed with Brahms's Piano Quartet No. 2 in A major, Op. 26 (1861).  The work was published in the same year as its companion piece, the Piano Quartet No. 1 in G minor, Op. 25; but Brahms, that diehard perfectionist, had actually begun work on both several years earlier and had then constantly revised each before finally submitting them for publication.  In their final form, the two quartets are a study in contrasts.  While the G minor is passionate and fiery, not least in the final movement Rondo alla Zingarese, the A major is far more genial and unhurried to the extent that it constitutes, at roughly fifty minutes in performance time, Brahms's longest piece of instrumental music.  This refusal to be rushed is nowhere so evident as in the second movement adagio, the heart of the work, that Brahms referred to as a "Night Piece" and that is in fact a nocturne subtly flavored with "gypsy" accents.  The final movement also differs from that of the Op. 25 in that it is in sonata form rather than being a true rondo.

The musicians for this final piece were Eunsae Lee, violin, Sophia Sun, viola, Thapelo Masita, cello, and Jansen Ryser, piano; their coaches were Joseph Lin and Jerome Lowenthal.

This was a highly satisfying recital.  The program was excellent and all three works very skillfully performed by talented musicians.

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