Brahms, Beethoven and Beauty
The Philomusica String Quartet was on top of its game playing two great works.
Although there was no Bach on the Philomusica String Quartet’s program at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music on Monday evening, there were still three B’s: Beethoven, Brahms, and Beauty. Violinists Jeanyi Kim and Alexander Mandl, violist Nathan Hackett, cellist Adrien Zitoun, and guest pianist May Phang expended prodigious physical and mental energy in a program showcasing two masterpieces that rest securely atop the pantheon of all chamber music.
The late String Quartet in B-flat Major, Op. 130, of Ludwig van Beethoven employs compositional architecture with classical form, romantic phrasing, and in some places, modernity that would seem contemporary with Schoenberg. The brief opening chorale of the Adagio ma non troppo quickly dissolves into a shimmering, quicksilver Allegro. The players of the Philomusica chose a tempo that was shot through with perhaps more adrenaline than was controllable. A bit of clarity and repose was sacrificed; however, the excess energy had definite payoffs in excitement. Stark dynamic contrasts created a breathless quality that was thrilling. Minor qualms—heavily accented eighth notes played too far beyond forte; sixteenth-note exchanges bogged down from vertical emphasis—were unimportant compared to the exuberance and passion on tap from these four.
The Presto flew like the wind. This second movement is a Roman candle, and Kim exploded with fistfuls of technical fireworks.
The musicians negotiated the fourth movement Alla danza tedesca: Allegro assai, written in a more formal minuet-trio style, with great balance and warmth. Their splendid intonation and nicely blended sounds in all but the fiercest volume melded into a rich harmonium-like sound. Kim played the long melodies in the trio section with sweetness.
The Cavatina: Adagio molto espressivo fifth movement is a compositional wonder. A tender melody floats across a foundation of motion that dissolves into a triplet pattern; over this the first violin offers a pointillistic deconstruction of time and unmoors the music from any tangible rhythm, returning to a pulse and ending with serenity.
The Finale: Allegro was played with white-hot intensity that was almost feral in its abandon yet satisfying in its execution.
On the second half, the quartet was joined by pianist May Phang for the massive Piano Quintet in F Minor, Op. 34, by Johannes Brahms. Phang’s impressive playing helped to frame the dynamism of the quartet, which resulted in a clearer depiction of phrase shapes and lengths, the building and arrival of climaxes with a clear purpose, and well-controlled balance among the five voices. In the ensemble’s hands the piano quintet was a revelation. While this composition is perfect as it is, one can’t help imagining it as a fully orchestrated symphonic work. As it stands, the F minor quintet commands the listener’s undivided attention.
The Allegro non troppo featured elegant playing from everyone, but Phang, especially, galvanized the group through the stormy movement with a wide array of colors, driving rhythm, and clear musical intent.
The Andante un poco adagio has graceful elements that are devastatingly beautiful. Phang and the strings took turns interpreting the lush melody lines with warmth and poise, and the sensitivity with which these wonderful artists played was a joy.
The Scherzo: Allegro burst out with a burning passion that danced with syncopated vitality and highlighted the musicians’ willingness to play with great dynamic contrast. One might quibble with intonation issues in some of the difficult octave passages in the violins, although the point that came across vibrantly was the electricity of the music.
The Finale: Poco sostenuto; Allegro non troppo; Presto non troppo featured some exceptional cello work from Zitoun, more brilliance from Phang, and fantastic gusto from Hackett, Mandl, and Kim.
All told, the Philomusica String Quartet offered a majestic program performed beautifully.