Fine Arts Quartet

A magical “Trout” on a Summer Evening

Legendary pianist Menahem Pressler sits in for some Schubert and contributes solo turns of Debussy and Chopin.

By - Jun 25th, 2012 05:36 pm
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Menahem Pressler. Photo courtesy of the artist's website.

A memorable performance has not only the right performers, but also the right music. Sunday night, the Fine Arts Quartet (Ralph Evans and Efim Boico, violins; Nicolò Eugelmi, viola; Robert Cohen, cello) with the venerable pianist Menahem Pressler and bassist Robert Kassinger were well matched with the repertoire on the third of four Summer Evenings of Music at UWM’s Zelazo Center.

Schubert’s “Trout” Quintet was the biggest work of the evening. This masterpiece is a 19th-century version of a “broken consort”–violin, viola, cello, piano and bass.  Because of the quirky instrumentation, we don’t hear the Trout live all that often, which made Sunday’s performance all the more welcome.

Everything was in place: The notes of a highly challenging score, played impeccably with apparent ease; expressiveness that sounded universal rather than willful and egotistical; and an attention to ensemble that makes the audience think that the musicians have been together for a lifetime. The players came across not only as interpreters of the score, but as poetic, expressive curators.

Stellar technique certainly helps with this, but would mean nothing without their shared understanding of the music. They seemed to realize that the Trout is a gem, a perfect specimen. They dusted it off and displayed it, with just the right amount of personal insight. The performance was
emotional but it was also restrained, and that made the results all the more powerful.

Their sonic philosophy was evident from the explosive opening chord, followed by a first theme played with a sense of awe and mystery. A welcome delicacy permeated all five movements. They passed around the tune in the celebrated variation movement as if handing off a fragile treasure. The pianissimos in the andante couldn’t have been softer or more poignant. The performance certainly had its bravura moments, which stood out all the more amid the delicacy.

Pressler especially has  mastered the balancing act of blending his own profound musicality with the composer’s art. He turns phrase after phrase in a way that convinces listeners that they just heard the music the only way it should sound. I first heard Pressler play 34 years ago, when this remarkable artist was already 40 years into his career. I called him the “the irrepressible Pressler” then. Now, I know that that phrase does not do him justice.

But this sort of musicianship was not Pressler’s alone on Sunday. It was also evident in Mozart’s exquisite String Quartet K 575, which opened the program. Originally, 18th and 19th century chamber music was not meant for big halls but for domestic spaces. It is an intimate and conversational art. This performance captured that intimacy and sent it all the way up to the 4th row of the balcony. I felt as if I were in a friend’s living room. Everything was heard: the contrapuntal conversation of the cello and viola that starts the last movement, the little opera in miniature that is the second movement, Cohen’s high cello playing across all four movements, at once eloquent and virtuosic.

What do you sandwich between a gigantic masterpiece of the early 19th century and an exquisite masterpiece of the late 18th? An “amuse bouche” masterpiece from the early 20th century, Claude Debussey’s Estampes. Pressler played the three pieces that make up the set with a
panache that bordered on the profound. Such playing brought him out again for an encore for a clear summer evening: the meditative Chopin Nocturne in the twilight key of C# minor. Just right!

The fourth and final Summer Evening of Music will begin at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, June 28, with guest violinist Guillermo Figueroa. Call the Peck School of the Arts box office, 414 229-4308.

Keep track of the Fine Arts Quartet and all of Milwaukee’s music, dance and theater groups. Bookmark Matthew Reddin’s TCD Guide to the 2012-2013 season.

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