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The Three B''s

New York
Merkin Concert Hall
11/26/2002 -  
Arnold Bax: Quintet
Ludwig van Beethoven: Quintet, Op. 104
Johannes Brahms: Sextet # 1


Ralph Vaughn Williams used to say how envious he was of his friend Arnold Bax because of his ability to create exotic color in his music through the daring use of chordal combinations. A rare but well done reading of the Quintet last evening at Merkin Hall delightfully exposed Sir Arnold’s penchant for striking hue and, because of the extremely well thought out clarity of line, his ingenious method of musical architecture. Much of this subtlety would have remained cloaked without the excellent playing of Concertante, an ensemble I find more and more satisfying each time that I encounter them. The group is a throwback to the idea of a players’ guild: a roster of fine instrumentalists who convene on a regular basis for high quality realizations of the classics and the occasional underplayed or contemporary piece.

The Op. 104 Beethoven quintet probably seems unfamiliar to most listeners until the band strikes up. Then one realizes that it is an arrangement of the famous Piano Trio # 3, without much bottom but deliciously richer in string blending. Again, the group, now metamorphosed into other players, presented a ravishing version, the main themes, so comforting in their melodic line even when reworked into differing timbres, lovingly bounced about and developed by both composer on a busman’s holiday and a set of performers totally invested in the beauty of their project. The only aspect of Concertante that puzzles me is why they are not appearing at Carnegie Hall.

For how many years have I been treated to warm and convivial performances of the Brahms? Well, more than I care to remember, but one fact is undeniable: this was the finest performance of this sunny piece that I have ever experienced. An amalgam of the musicians from the first two numbers produced playing of such a high order as to call in question many other concerts that I have heard recently. Here we had a superbly blended rendition, the deeply intoned cello arpeggios thrilling in their zaftig bedrock of strength, the individual viola utterances positively sung out in a human sense, the players so totally involved as to pantomime the phrases with their facial expressions like sensitive operatic performers, the violins sailing above it all with an angelic air. Not only high energy and solid technique graced this evening, but also a savvy sense of the nuances of the composer. These folks understand the secret of extraordinary Brahmsian communication: never play the repeat of a phrase exactly the same way as the original. The poetry is in the details; odd how many more celebrated artists miss this particular boat entirely. Clarity was never sacrificed in this exciting performance, the infectious élan not sweeping away the precision in its wake. The inner duet between second violin and second viola was especially thrilling.

It is tempting to single out individual performers for special praise. However, there is something magical about this particular group’s ensemble identity. Whoever named them was spot on. They are a true concertante in the Baroque sense, achieving that most difficult of goals, playing together as a unit. Besides, those of you who have an even richer voice and greater ability to express yourselves than your peers already know who you are.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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