Having taken so much pleasure in the Master Class that Menahem Pressler gave on Tuesday evening at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, I was looking forward to his appearance at the Chamber Music Masters concert last night. I like the way in which the Conservatory tends to structure these events. The "guest" (in this case Pressler) performs with both faculty and students; and a students-only performance usually gets sandwiched between two appearances by that "guest." In this case the middle of the concert was a string quartet of students playing the single-movement (structured in three sections without any breaks) Opus 138 string quartet by Dmitri Shostakovich. Since the "sandwiching" compositions went for a light touch and with (both gentle and raucous) wit, all of the "weight" of the evening resided between the two slices of bread. The members of the quartet (violins Eric Chin and Emily Nenninger, viola Matthew Davies, and cello Samsun Van Loon) were definitely up to the seriousness of their task and had a good sense of how to deliver the three sections as an integrated da capo whole. Written five years before the end of Shostakovich's life, this was very much a meditation on death; and, while the program notes dwelled on pain and grief, I felt that this was a work in which Shostakovich had gotten beyond the need for the sharp crypto-irony that had enabled him to survive under Stalin. This was the retrospective view of a survivor of nightmares that escaped the confines of the dream world; and, for me at least, this particularly performance was more about a Kübler-Ross approach to an acceptance of death, rather than a reaction of depression or anger.
By leaving Shostakovich to the students, Pressler was free to deal with the lighter side of things, first in the D. 574 violin sonata of Franz Schubert and then in the Opus 25 piano quartet by Johannes Brahms. These two works represented, respectively, what, in the previous paragraph, I called "gentle and raucous" approaches to wit. Indeed, the wit of the Schubert sonata is very much the wit of those Opus 10 piano sonatas of Beethoven that András Schiff played this past Sunday. Recall, that I had already suggested that the second of these piano sonatas probably had an impact on Schubert's compositions for solo piano; but the violin sonata had more to do with picking up on what I had called Beethoven's sense of play in the Opus 10 sonatas. Pressler clearly understood that sense of play; you could see it in his entire body. Unfortunately, violin faculty member Axel Strauss did not seem to grasp the concept; and this undermined the chamber music ideal of a small number of musicians performing as one.
On the other hand the musicians who joined Pressler for the Brahms piano quartet, violin faculty member Ian Swensen and students Daniel Jang (viola) and Erin Wang (cello), all agreed on the more raucous wit of what they were playing. This kind of raucousness is most apparent in the final "Rondo alla Zingarese" ("Gypsy") movement, which is about as over-the-top as Brahms ever got (leaving it only to the Schoenberg orchestration to take things even further over the top); but there is nothing restrained about the other three movements, particularly when the serenity of the "Andante con moto" third movement gets interrupted by a puffed-up parade that seems to have more to do with Bismarck than with Brahms. Needless to say, this was the sort of performance that makes an audience leap to its feet at the final note; and it was good to see two of the Conservatory students share in the fun of it all. Pressler is a regular visitor to the Conservatory; but this was my first chance to see him "in action" there. Between the Master Class and the recital, I just hope it is not my last.