Those who missed the Bridge Players’ performance of Johannes Brahms’ Opus 25 piano quartet in G minor at this past Sunday’s Music in the Mishkan performance had the opportunity for a second chance early this afternoon. The group performed Opus 25 as this week’s installment in the Noontime Concerts series (“San Francisco’s Musical Lunch Break”) at Old St. Mary’s Cathedral. Amy Zanrosso replaced Marilyn Thompson as pianist. However, the string players were the same with Randall Weiss on violin, Natalia Vershilova on viola, and Victoria Ehrlich on cello.
Since this was a “lunch break” concert, Opus 25 was the only work on the program. However, Weiss gave the piece a brief verbal introduction, observing that it is best known for its final Rondo alla zingarese, an evocation of gypsy music that is far wilder and uninhibited than any one of those 21 Hungarian dances in Brahms’ WoO 1 could ever hope to be. While this movement is notorious for its outrageousness, however, it is often overlooked that it is more than adequately rivaled by the preceding movement.
The third movement of Opus 25 is given the tempo Andante con moto, and it is one of the earliest instances in Brahms’ chamber music of a slow movement whose rhetoric involves a theme expressed in a low register. The lyricism of this theme amounts to a forecast of the expressiveness of slow movements yet to be composed. However, the movement is interrupted midway by the sound of a marching band in the distance. The band keeps getting closer; and, as it gets closer, it also gets more aggressive. Ultimately, it reaches a climax that amounts to a reductio ad absurdum of pomp and circumstance. Then, just when the attentive listener is beginning to adjust to the shock of the outburst, the band marches on and fades away into the distance, allowing the Andante con moto theme to return.
If there was ever any doubt that Brahms had a sense of humor, this movement seals the deal. Indeed, Zanrosso, whose keyboard technique was instrumental (pun intended) in mapping out this absurd dynamic contour, looked as if she could barely contain herself as the band drew closer and closer. Fortunately, her own sense of humor never impeded her contributing to make the comedy of this music as effective as possible.
None of this should dismiss the more sober qualities of the opening two movements. Weiss also observed that this was music in which the churning activity of the background was almost as important as the theme in the foreground. (He suggested that Arnold Schoenberg’s orchestration of Opus 25 may even have made the background more important than the foreground.) This was clearly an attentive reading of Brahms’ score, and the resulting rhetoric could not have been more compelling.