Monday, November 28, 2011

two concerts

1. SF Symphony on Wednesday. I already had tickets to this one, because I wanted to hear Gil Shaham, whom I'd recently heard play unaccompanied Bach, in a Brahms concerto. Then I was called in last-minute to review it. This involved making a special trip ahead of time to turn in my existing tickets for something else, as you can't do that the day of the concert. (It was OK: I had to go up anyway to confirm that a fact I was looking for was not in a rare book held by the UC Berkeley library, as indeed it wasn't.) Sitting in the close-up reviewer seats probably improved the positive slant on my review, such was the intimacy of Shaham's performance. I don't feel I captured the essence of that, though I could certainly feel it, as well as I did the profound weirdness of Schoenberg's orchestration of Brahms' G-minor piano quartet, a work which, such is the deep impact of the arranger on this echt-Brahms piece, sounds as if it was written at no known date in musical history.

2. The New Esterhazy Quartet, Sunday afternoon as the sun was setting on that dark and echoing bunker known as All Saints Church in Palo Alto. The program was of "Haydn & His Students," which attracted me. This group, as its name implies, specializes in Haydn, and standard Haydn is what they do best. Op. 20 No. 2 is not standard Haydn. This coarsely dramatic piece came out with a Baroque restraint, its drama tampered down to wistfulness. It sounded as if it was by Corelli. I'm not complaining, exactly. From Haydn's most famous pupil, Beethoven, we had Op. 95. A knotty mature Beethoven quartet like this one is rather outside of this group's range, and it felt like wandering around in the dark (by this time it was pretty close to dark even inside the church), except for the scherzo and the finale coda, which snapped together fairly well.

The two obscure works by lesser-known composers were more interesting. A brief D minor quartet by Beethoven's drinking and whoring buddy Baron Zmeskall (also the dedicatee of Op. 95) concluded with a lively rustic finale. And last, the Op. 94 No. 3 in F minor by Ron Drummond's favorite, Anton Reicha. (And the almost textless program leaflet bore a credit: "Thanks to Ron Drummond for supplying performance materials for the Reicha Quartet.") This was fun and full of unexpected things. The first movement is based largely on an unpromising-sounding rhythmic motif, something Beethoven would do, but Reicha's elaborations on it are more Italianate, in a Mozartean style perhaps, than Beethovenian. Only the occasional cross-bar notes really betray Haydn's influence. The slow movement starts with formal loud/soft call/response phrases, and features imaginative flights in the cello line. The austere minuet has pairs of instruments playing in canon, but surprisingly does not return to this minimal scoring in the da capo. The finale won my favor with a reminiscence of the Pastorale Symphony's scherzo, countrified throbbing drone passages over which the first violin played off-key, or are you telling me that last feature was not deliberate?

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