Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Three Concerts In Three Days

On the weekend before Thanksgiving, Joshua and I attended three concerts in three days, something very rare for us. In fact, I think it may have been the first time we have ever done so.

The cause of our concentrated bout of concert-going: there were three programs we especially wanted to hear, all involving musicians Josh had never encountered in person.


On Friday night, we went to Jordan Hall to hear the Tokyo String Quartet. The program: Mozart’s String Quartet In D Major, K. 575; Barber’s String Quartet; and Schubert’s String Quintet, in which the Tokyo String Quartet was joined by cellist Lynn Harrell.

I have always very much liked the Tokyo String Quartet, even though the ensemble has never been my favorite quartet, active or retired. Less aggressive than the Juilliard, less “American” than the Emerson, less overtly energetic than the Hagen, less refined than the Italian, not as unduly polished as the Guarneri, and not as relentlessly “penetrating” as the Alban Berg, the Tokyo String Quartet has always seemed to me to be a quartet that has achieved an ideal middle ground: it has found a successful balance between the objective and the subjective; its search for tonal beauty and perfection of execution does not come at the expense of inspiration and spontaneity; and its performances are, in general, deeply-considered yet not marred by artifice.

The Tokyo has a very pleasing sound, although its sound lacks the great individuality and special character of the Italian or the Guarneri. Indeed, if I have any quibble about the Tokyo, it is that the Tokyo’s sound is somewhat generic.

The Tokyo currently plays on a set of Stradivarius instruments named for Niccolo Paganini, who owned the set—the so-called “Paganini Quartet”—during his lifetime. The instruments, part of the collection of The Corcoran Gallery Of Art until that institution, in a very controversial move, disposed of its musical instrument collection in 1995, have for the last fifteen years been on loan to the Tokyo by the private owner that acquired the set from the Corcoran.

Mozart’s String Quartet No. 21 In D Major, K. 575, is the first of Mozart’s “King Of Prussia” Quartets (the composer had contemplated a set of six, but only lived to complete half that number). Written in 1789, K. 575 may be the finest of the “King Of Prussia” set (the two that followed—with some difficulty—in 1790 were written while Mozart suffered from depression; after completing the 1790 efforts, the composer was to write no further for the medium).

I thought the Tokyo performance of the Mozart was almost perfection, and this is so despite the fact that my personal preference is for more melancholy in Mozart than the Tokyo was willing to display. The Tokyo offered a ripe, Romantic performance that never violated the bounds of Classicism. Any music lover would be delighted to hear such a performance, at any place, at any time. The Mozart was the highlight of the evening.

Barber’s String Quartet, composed in 1936 (the third movement was later twice revised), was the composer’s sole composition for the medium. Although Barber was later to accept a commission from Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge for a second string quartet, the commission went unfulfilled.

The Barber is famous because its middle movement was adapted for string orchestra and became ubiquitous as the Adagio For Strings, first heard in 1938.

I have never believed the Barber String Quartet to be successful. I understand the appeal of the middle movement, quite naturally, but the sonata-form first movement and the rondo final movement are not good movements—and, at least of equal importance, the three movements are segmented, never cohering into a satisfying whole.

Despite the fact that he used sonata form in his symphonies and concertos (as well as in his String Quartet, his Piano Sonata and other works), Barber never commanded the intricacies of the form. While he possessed a basic grasp of sonata-form requirements, Barber lacked the deep and innate and imaginative and original understanding of the form that Barber’s contemporary, William Walton, displayed—in spades—from the outset of Walton’s career. (Walton was only twenty-seven years old when he completed his first great masterpiece, his Viola Concerto.) In a long life, Barber was never to write a fully-satisfactory sonata-form movement—although I grant that the first movement of his Piano Concerto, his final completed effort in the form, came close.

The inevitable result, on painful display in most of Barber’s large-scale works: the listener is generally provided with a few moments of great beauty, very pleasant moments surrounded by far more moments in which nothing but note-spinning occurs. Had Barber been a master of sonata form—that is, had he been a genius—his large-scale works would have exhibited a natural command of development and structure and his large-scale works would have undertaken a genuine journey and reached an actual destination (as opposed to reaching a mere ending).

The exceptions among the composer’s large-scale works: those compositions in which he did not use sonata form. Medea’s Meditation And Dance Of Vengeance and the Third Essay For Orchestra, both supremely accomplished compositions and both written with different organizing principles, are probably Barber’s only two masterpieces among his longer works. (The undeniably affecting “Knoxville: Summer Of 1915” is woeful insofar as that composition’s seams show—its four sections are held together, if at all, by scotch tape.)

A related problem with Barber’s large-scale pieces is that the composer’s ideas—the very materials with which he built his compositions—are not first-rate. (The Piano Concerto provides a splendid example: the work, by and large very well-constructed, nevertheless features incomparably thin, if not non-existent, ideas). In each Barber work, there is invariably a modest yet pleasant melodic fragment or theme to be heard very early on. Upon first appearance, this fragment or theme is generally attractive on the surface—but such fragment or theme inevitably fails to sustain the listener’s interest upon repetition or upon the composer’s earnest but feeble attempts to vary or develop the fragment or theme.

Even Barber’s miniatures are prone to the insipidity of his ideas. The song, “Sure On This Shining Night”, one of the composer’s most well-known and most frequently-performed songs, goes nowhere after the first statement of its theme. The theme initially appears to have some moderate appeal—but, upon restatement, the theme is revealed to be profoundly unimaginative if not outright maudlin.

Barber’s String Quartet suffers grievously from the deficiencies of inadequate mastery of form and thinness of ideas. After two promising minutes, the first movement goes nowhere. The second movement, impossible for me to hear with fresh ears, is nowise an answer to what has come before. The brief third movement, with its wispy ideas, seems endless and does not provide a fitting or satisfying conclusion to movements one and two.

The Tokyo String Quartet apparently believes in the Barber work or else it would not have programmed it. I listened to the Tokyo performance intently, even acutely, trying to ascertain what the Tokyo found in the piece.

My conclusion: the Tokyo found nothing in the piece. The Barber, I believe, had been programmed out of the Tokyo’s sense of obligation to offer something “modern” to its audience. Myself, I would much rather have heard Tokyo explore something genuinely modern instead of Barber’s very weak attempt at string-quartet writing more than seventy years ago.

The performance of the Schubert String Quintet that concluded the program was, I believe, slightly disappointing. The reading was under-characterized, the musicians unwilling to explore the full profundity and sadness of one of Schubert’s very greatest compositions. In his String Quintet, Schubert had stared into the abyss—and the Tokyo and Harrell were, on the Friday before last, reluctant to go that far. The reading was too objective, and not entirely dissimilar to the Mozart performance that began the evening.

On November 19, the Tokyo String Quartet offered little differentiation between music of The Classical Period and music of The Early Romantic Period. Its performances of Mozart and Schubert were startlingly alike, and it was the Schubert that suffered.

I did not object to the Tokyo’s Romantic tendencies in Mozart; I found unfulfilling the Tokyo’s too-Classical Schubert.


On Saturday night (November 20), Josh and I went to Symphony Hall to hear the Boston Symphony. It was only our second Boston Symphony concert of the season, yet it was the second consecutive week in which we had bought tickets to hear the orchestra.

We attended the concert because Josh had never heard Kurt Masur. I wanted Josh to hear Masur in repertory in which Masur excels while Josh still had the chance—and, given Masur’s advancing age and given the fact that Josh and I have no expectations that Masur will appear in Minneapolis in coming years, Josh may not have many future opportunities to hear Masur.

The concert was devoted to music of Robert Schumann, a composer whose music Masur has long since conquered.

Masur is the finest living exponent of music of The Early Romantic Period. No living conductor is superior in the music of Schubert, Schumann and Mendelssohn. Masur demonstrates comparable greatness in no other area of the repertory, although he is a distinguished—but not particularly imaginative—conductor of Beethoven, Brahms and Bruckner.

The concert began with Schumann’s Symphony No. 1 (“Spring”). This work has long been a Masur specialty, and he and the Boston Symphony gave what I thought to be a faultless performance. Tempi were perfect, transitions were expertly handled, balances were carefully managed. It was the finest performance of the evening.

The concert continued with Schumann’s Piano Concerto, in which the soloist was Nelson Freire. The musicians offered a perfectly acceptable performance of a work that is difficult to hold together, as all three movements are, in effect, discrete compositions. The least interesting work on the program, the Piano Concerto received the least interesting performance.

The concert concluded with Schumann’s Symphony No. 4 in its final, 1851 version. Masur avoided heaviness in the passages in which the scoring is congested, but Masur’s reading lacked much of the deep emotion and outright drama—and grandeur—that conductors such as Herbert Von Karajan and George Szell found in the Fourth.

One becomes depressed when one reflects upon the inadequacy of Schumann performance today. The Schumann performances Josh and I heard eleven days ago in Boston may turn out to be the finest Schumann performances we shall ever experience in person. The Boston performances were idiomatic and carefully considered and carefully rendered—and yet they were not inspired (although the performance of the “Spring” Symphony came close).

Schumann performance is a dying art. Once Masur passes from the scene, the only remaining Schumann conductor of note will be Christian Thielemann, who no longer appears in the U.S.

Most American music-lovers will never live to hear in person a competent, let alone an inspired, performance of a Schumann symphony.


On Sunday afternoon (November 21), Josh and I returned to Symphony Hall to hear a recital by Pinchas Zukerman and Yefim Bronfman. On the program were sonatas for violin (or viola) and piano by Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms.

At age 62, Zukerman remains in full command of his technique (which cannot be said of many living violinists past their fiftieth birthdays, including Zukerman’s close friend and contemporary, Itzhak Perlman).

Zukerman has a beautiful sound—warm, dark, focused—and he is capable of offering superb, noble performances when he is of a mind to do so. In many ways, Zukerman is a throwback to earlier times: his playing is reserved but unquestionably Romantic in outlook.

It was my hope that Zukerman, playing with pianist Bronfman instead of his regular accompanist, Marc Neikrug, would be more engaged than usual for his Boston appearance. It was for this reason that Josh and I had acquired tickets for Zukerman’s Boston recital.

The recital began with Mozart’s Sonata No. 32 In B Flat Major, K. 454, For Piano And Violin.

K. 454 was written in 1784 for one of Mozart’s most skilled pupils. The sonata is perhaps Mozart’s very finest effort in the form (Anne-Sophie Mutter, for one, considers K. 454 to be Mozart’s single greatest work for violin and piano—and it was with K. 454 that Mutter concluded her 2006 all-Mozart recital in Saint Paul, a recital Josh and I attended).

Bronfman was in his element in the Mozart, which offered Bronfman’s finest playing of the afternoon. In fact, I thought Bronfman’s Mozart was finer than Zukerman’s Mozart, largely because Bronfman’s playing was unstudied and unexaggerated. In contrast, Zukerman was prone to telegraph his phrasing, a practice that struck me as slightly artificial and certainly emphatic.

The recital continued with Beethoven’s Sonata No. 5 In F Major, Opus 24, For Violin And Piano (“Spring”), one of Beethoven’s most popular works.

It was Zukerman who came into his element in the Beethoven. While his Mozart had been arch and not entirely convincing, his Beethoven was apt and true. This was stylish Beethoven playing, rhythms firm yet flexible, the array of colors perfect for Zukerman’s straightforward and mellow reading, forward momentum in equilibrium with expression.

Zukerman’s was a very relaxed “Spring” Sonata, the interpretation of a musician who knows the music inside out and who still loves the piece even after decades of performing it in concert halls everywhere. Musical tension never abated, yet Zukerman spun out the notes as naturally as breathing. This was the work of a very, very great artist.

After intermission, the recitalists performed Brahms’s Sonata No. 2 In E Flat Major, Opus 120, For Viola And Piano.

Zukerman must love this work, because I believe he performs it more frequently than any other single work in his repertory.

His performance of the Brahms was very much like the Beethoven: utterly natural and deeply-felt, the result of years of thought and experience, the music having become a virtual extension of Zukerman’s personality.

I wish a fourth work had been added to what was a very short program—Janacek’s sonata would have been an ideal addition to the recital—because Zukerman left me wanting to hear more.

Despite an ungenerous bill of fare, Zukerman and Bronfman offered only one encore: Number Four from Schumann’s Marchenbilder. It was appropriate music to follow the Brahms.

Zukerman and Bronfman had performed the very same program—with the very same encore—on the preceding Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday evenings. Boston was the final stop of a five-city, six-day tour that began in Princeton, continued in Chicago and Kansas City, and involved a Carnegie Hall appearance the evening before the tour concluded with the Boston recital Josh and I attended.

I am very pleased Josh and I went to hear Zukerman. We caught him on very good form, as we had hoped—and, when Zukerman is on form, he has few peers.


  1. Hiya!

    What a way to spend the holiday! :oD I've never heard the Tokyo Strings Quartet and must look them up. Bronfman was hear earlier in the year doing Beethoven concerti, though. He canceled two shows, but turned up the day I went and was quite fabulous (and I don't usually like to attend a Beethoven concert at the SD Symphony... They are technically really fantastic but tend to play big B as if he was an even-tempered fellow).

    Thanks a bunch for sharing your thoughts with us. Very insightful read.

    Hope your December has started well!

    Smorgy :o)

  2. It speaks very well for Bronfman's character that he honored his commitment to perform with Zukerman, even though this meant going against his doctor's orders. He was recently hospitalized in Europe for a severe attack of diverticulitis. Zukerman may (or may not) be an excellent musician, but I have personal experience with the very mean-spirited side of his character.

  3. Abbado is superb in this repertoire, much better than Masur.

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  5. And I trust, Smorg, that your December, too, is off to a wonderful start.

    The American press reported, Yana, that Bronfman has been ill and, further, that he had had to seek medical consultation during the course of his brief tour with Zukerman.

    I am not in agreement with you, Matthew, about Abbado’s strengths as a conductor of Early Romantic repertory. Abbado’s performances of Schubert, Schumann and Mendelssohn, to my ears, are little more than an accumulation of detail, lacking emotional generosity, intellectual depth and the deep resonance that comes with innigkeit, as the Germans call it.

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