Mr. and Mrs. Schiff
92nd Street Y
Antonin Dvorak: Terzetto, Op. 74; Viola Quintet; Piano Quintet
Andras Schiff (piano)
Yuuko Shiokawa (viola)
Jiri Panocha and Pavel Zejfart (violins)
Miroslav Sehnoutka (viola)
Jaroslav Kulhan (cello)
Two seasons ago, the 92nd Street Y devoted their entire International Quartet series to groups from the Czech Republic. The three ensembles that I heard, the Wihan, Prazak and Panocha Quartets were all characterized by incredibly precise and disciplined playing and deeply plumbed wells of expression. The Panocha was especially impressive in that their sound is truly unique: a gossamer quietude of intense delicacy, ushering us all into a fairyland wherein the slightest change in dynamics produces goosebumps of musical delight. Never before have I experienced such subtle nuance of pianissimo, such eloquence of sotto voce. It was thus with great expectations that I attended the foursome’s first New York appearance since that magical evening, doubly excited by the prospect that their already shimmering sound would be enhanced by the presence of their invited guests, that profoundly musical couple Yuuko Shiokawa and Andras Schiff.
The Panocha’s gift is so precious that they presented it as a curtain-raising offering. The Terzetto established immediately a soft and lovely sonic world, a land of forgotten dreams. Even without the cello bottom, this was a sonority to die for. For those in the audience who had not had the previous pleasure, it was important to frame this recital in these diaphanous terms.
Often guest artists can be either intrusive or irrelevant to a group’s performance. This afternoon, however, both invitees brought quite a bit to the party. Ms. Shiokawa, actually a violinist by trade, instantly expressed her own broader style in the initial intoning of the opus 97, creating from the outset the atmosphere of a prayer meeting in the responsive style. Her viola, in its earthy brownness, sounded like an entirely different instrument than that of her Czech counterpart, whose own fiddle seems celestial by comparison. I was struck by the similarities of this beautiful work to the religious style of Charles Ives and thought some about the idiomatic Americanism of Dvorak and his dictum that each composer must speak in his own personal voice. As this outstanding performance unfolded, comparisons to the Primrose/Budapest recording (one of the greatest jewels in the LP repertoire) came to mind. Decidedly different but equally ravishing, that amazing larghetto was positively sanctified.
Regular readers of these pages will know that I have a personal penchant for those musicians who take the trouble to listen to one another. I was thus pleased to see Ms. Shiokawa become a member of the audience for the second half of the program, anticipating with the rest of us a great collaboration between these glorious Czechs and her husband. I trust that she was as gratified as I to hear such superb music making.
C Major, E Flat Major, A Major…there certainly was a lot of sunshine on a New York cloudy day emanating from this particular stage. Dvorak at his best reminds of the untroubled Brahms, on one of his Alpine walks with Ignaz Bruell, stopping off for a stein or two at a lively peasant inn. Others, to be sure, combined their native élan with Brahmsian harmony (Joachim, for example), but no one ever elevated the teachings of the Hamburg master to such a dizzying height of optimism as this particular Bohemian. From the first notes, Mr. Schiff added his own personal stamp to the proceedings, a powerful and aristocratic flair for the dramatic and exciting, challenging the refined string players to loosen up a little and whirl us all through the furiant scherzo. Perhaps the most infectious part of this concert was the obvious joy on the faces of its participants translated expertly into rhythm and sound and traveling into the fingers and toes of the audience. Anyone who still thinks of classical music as stodgy would have changed their tune after hearing such a spirited reading of this masterwork. I realize that it is only the end of the first full week of the new season, but it would be hard to imagine a chamber concert more worthy of an end of the year award than this one. Although, the Prazak is coming to Weill in just a few weeks…
Frederick L. Kirshnit