Summer in the City
Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Quartet in E-flat major for Piano, Violin, Viola, and Cello, K. 493 (+)
Antonín Dvorák: Slavonic Dances for Piano, Four Hands (*)
Robert Schumann: Quartet in E-flat major for Piano, Violin, Viola, and Cello, Op. 47 (#)
Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center: Alexander Sitkovetsky (violin), Yura Lee (viola), Jan Vogler (cello), Orion Weiss (+ *), Wu Qian (* #) (piano)
“JERRY: You don’t know Robert Schumann? The composer?
GEORGE: Oh, Schumann. Of course.
JERRY: (Trying to scare George) He went crazy from one note. He couldn’t get it out of his head. I think it was an A. He kept repeating it over and over again. He had to be institutionalized.”
Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld
When I was on the radio my theme was the beginning of the slow movement from Robert Schumann’s Piano Quartet. For me it remains the most haunting melody in the literature; whenever I had time to open my telephone lines to listeners this movement, or indeed the entire piece, was always the most requested. It expresses not only romance and beauty but also the composer’s deeply felt belief that he would never experience love in a lasting way. Heartbreaking and yet sensually fulfilling. The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center included this extraordinary work on the second of their triptych of summer concerts.
But first Mozart. Orion Weiss (piano), Alexander Sitkovetsky (violin), Yura Lee (viola) and Jan Vogler (cello) offered the K. 493 Piano Quartet. The Chamber Music Society not only presets high quality renditions, but also is deeply committed to develop new performers, exposing them to the rigors and rewards of musical presentation at the highest level. The normal formula for these debuts is that an acolyte plays with one or two of the veteran members of the association. For this summer concert, however, the newbies were on their own.
This iteration of the society had its troubles this evening. It should be noted that Alice Tully Hall was completely filled, a rarity that did the heart good. However the quartet hit a sour note in the very first passage, a moment which seemed to mark this event as a whole as a problem concert. As if it were a Brahms rather than a Mozart quartet, Mr. Weiss at the piano dominated a bit too much, his runs sometimes a bit runny and the net effect breaking down into four voices rather than one. Not a bad performance, just one needing the guiding hand of a master.
In a rather unusual interlude, Wu Qian joined Mr. Weiss at the piano for four Slavonic Dances for four hands, each pianist taking the top line for two of these crowd pleasers. The audience responded in kind, clapping wildly for pieces that ended in a jolly manner and not at all reacting if the ending was more sober in nature. This bit of fluff turned out to contain the best playing of the evening.
Stylistically about as different from the Mozart as possible, Schumann’s quartet taps a cranial vein, a previously unexplored path to ultimate isolation and regret. Those who know his song “The Happy Farmer” experience the deeply felt loneliness of a man who atavistically realizes that he will never be at peace, never be lastingly joyful. Here we experience more direct communication with loneliness than any medical or psychological terminology can express.
With Wu Qian at the keyboard the string players returned and fashioned a fairly good rendition of the piece, however it was a realization without the plumbing of the deepest of feelings. In the profound third movement the naked presentation of emotion was basically ignored, especially since the phrasing of the main theme was totally different when the viola reprised it after the opening cello solo. Again, this would have been a moment for a guiding hand to suggest more of a unity, but apparently these young musicians were out there without a mentor and it showed.