Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Getting the Scale Right

Last night's String and Piano Chamber Music recital at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music confirmed my thoughts from Monday about "recital scale." The major work on the program was the C Minor piano quartet, Opus 60, of Johannes Brahms. I had heard Joel Krosnick coach the Andante movement of this quartet when he visited for his Master Class; and I really wanted to hear it in its entirety, since I had not heard a "live" performance since 1983, during a series of concerts at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan that covered all of Brahms' chamber music for piano and strings. Brahms was very clear about this being a highly emotional work; and Krosnick invoked the adjective "heartbreaking" for the cello solo that begins the Andante.

However, all of that emotion is not a matter of unbridled wailing. There were certainly fortissimo moments last night, but they were all the stronger in a context where loudness was strictly modulated to achieve the highest intensity. Furthermore, Brahms put so much into the piano part that it comes close to being a piano concerto for "very small orchestra," which makes the proper balancing of the four quartet voices particularly critical. The result was a striking opposition to the approach I had experienced in Heidi Melton's vocal recital. In this one piece of chamber music Brahms may have made his most "operatic" gestures; but he made them at "chamber" scale. The Conservatory students performing this piece seem to have put in the necessary effort to comprehend how those gestures should be delivered at the requisite scale; and the result was far more exciting than anything I heard on Sunday, including Richard Strauss' "Frülingsfeier," which posed the same problem of operatic gesture at chamber scale.

The program opening on an even smaller scale with Maurice Ravel's sonata for violin and cello. Ravel is usually best appreciated for his sonorities (and justifiably so); and this work experiments with such sonorities in its two instruments. both as individual voices and as blends of coloration. On the other hand Ravel is only seldom known for his wit, even though his G major piano concerto opens with a slapstick. The experiments in this sonata are clearly playful ones, which was a clever rhetorical move on Ravel's part. For his contemporaries many of the sounds were likely to have been perceived as bizarre, so he had the foresight to provide a spoonful of sugar to make the weirdness go down. He also kept his movements relatively brief, but each was still a minor gem in its construction.

The remaining work on the program provided me with a second opportunity (twice in one month) to hear Ernő von Dohnányi's Opus 10 Serenade for string trio. As I had previously observed, this is also a work of relatively brief gems. It is nowhere near as experimental as the Ravel sonata, but it displays the same appreciation of wit. Thus, the first half of last night's program began on the light side, so after the intermission we were settled in enough to deal with the emotional wallop of Brahms' venture into the darkness!

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