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Remembering Mischa

New York
Metropolitan Museum of Art
11/06/1999 -  
Robert Schumann: Piano Quartet, Piano Quintet, Songs
Beverly Hoch (soprano), Miwako Watanabe and Ida Levin (violins), James Dunham (viola), Robert Martin (cello), Anton Kuerti (piano)

One of the strangest contrasts in a New York concertgoer's experience is attending a performance at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Entering in architectural splendor, one makes their way through the Pharaonic majesty and opulence of the Egyptian wing and enters the Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium, a concert venue so shabby that it seems more like the assembly hall of a badly neglected junior high school in Brooklyn than a prime spot on the Manhattan circuit. The carpets are threadbare and horribly stained and the seats are ripped and absolutely filthy. Obviously Ms. Rogers has passed on to her reward, for otherwise she would have every right to sue the museum for neglect and defamation of character. Into this setting come many fine musicians who range from the purely amateur to the highly skilled professional and who play for a crowd decked out in the now all too familiar New York spectrum of attire from black tie to jeans. Last evening, Robert Martin, artistic director of the Bard Festival, fashioned an evening of music here by Robert Schumann as a tribute to the great cellist Mischa Schneider.

Back when the seats were clean, Schneider and his brother Sascha made up half of the renowned Budapest String Quartet and Mischa, who joined the group earlier and left later than his mercurial sibling, played over 50 concerts at the Met. He was particularly adept at the Romantic repertoire and possessed an unflagging tone perfectly suitable for the long, flowing Schumann lines. Certainly the ensemble last night was not of the caliber of the eminent Russians masquerading as Hungarians who dominated chamber performance in the 1930's, '40's and '50's, but they played with the same sense of desire and seriousness of purpose.

I was fortunate to host my own radio show in Connecticut and I chose as my theme the lovely romance that is the opening theme of the Andante cantabile that makes up the third movement of Schumann's only Piano Quartet. The cello solo at the commencement of this movement is as beautiful as any piece of Romanticism can be and the theme is repeated almost immediately by the violin and, much later in the movement, by the viola (Brahms paid homage to this construction in the third movement of his "Suicide" Quartet, Op. 60). Mr. Martin played this theme lovingly and with a good healthy vibrato which was echoed beautifully by Ms. Watanabe. Only Mr. Dunham performed this wonderful melody unemotionally, using a surprisingly declarative style that did not mesh with his colleagues' highly developed sense of zaftig phrasing. Overall the piece was played very well, only beauty of tone separating this group from the higher level of the superstar chamber players that are so plentiful these days.

Ms. Hoch and Mr. Kuerti performed a series of lieder from Schumann's large repertoire. The soprano began her part of the program by welcoming us into the living room of her imagination (I would have thought that she would have cleaned up a little before inviting guests) and then sang with a great deal of emotion a representative variety of Schumann moods from happy ditties of Spring to airs of profound melancholy (there was a panel discussion beforehand featuring a psychiatrist but I've heard enough of this type of quasi-medical analysis of poor Schumann to last me a lifetime and so I came only for the music). Her sound was strong and well shaped and she was quite an accomplished actress of the voice as well.

The living room idea was spot on as this intimate music was written for home performance, a concept pretty well lost on modern audiences. In the nineteenth century every educated person in Europe played an instrument and social evenings often included performances of chamber works written by the masters. Last night's performance of the Piano Quintet seemed to harken back to those halcyon days. Raggedy in places, in general it held together well and featured moments of very fine playing, but never a unified sound that could be classified as totally satisfying. This was intense music played by dedicated players and it was a pleasure to be a part of the experience. Mischa and his gang certainly played it better but not with more love and desire than this fine group of dedicated artists. There were a lot of empty seats and so the fund to spruce up the place is probably still short of cash. My seat on the subway home was a lot more appealing.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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