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A Chamber Music rendez-vous at the Toronto Summer Music Festival

MacMillan Theatre, Edward Johnson Building, Faculty of Music, University of Toronto
08/09/2008 -  
Robert Schumann: Piano Quartet in E Flat Major, Op.47
Johannes Brahms: Piano Quartet No.1 in G Minor, Op.25

Menahem Pressler (Piano), Alexander Kerr (Violin), Roberto Díaz (Viola), Paul Watkins (Cello)

M. Pressler (© Lutz Sternstein)

The series of musical events, which attracted top-ranking musicians for over three weeks between July 22nd-August 17th of classical music recitals, workshops and masterclasses, reflected the underlying concept of the Toronto Summer Music Festival. Inaugurated by Artistic Director Agnes Grossmann and now in the festival’s 4th celebrating year, today, we celebrated the mastery of Professor Menahem Pressler – noted pianist, pedagogue and founding member of the Beaux Arts Trio for over 53 years. On the concert-stage of the MacMillan Theatre, Professor Pressler joined forces with his newly invited chamber buddies – Alexander Kerr, former concertmaster of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Roberto Diaz, former principal violist of the Philadelphia Orchestra and current Curtis Institute President, and, Paul Watkins, BBC Young Musician of the Year in 1988 on the Cello. Their chemistry was phenomenal.

The programme in this evening’s Pressler and Friends recital offered a musical journey that took artists and audience alike into the chamber world of the great Romantics – Schumann and Brahms. The performances of the Schumann and Brahms Piano Quartets were among the finest and most impressive in the oeuvre of the Zwickau and Hamburg masters, respectively. It had always been particularly exciting to witness the chemistry of experienced chamber musicians originating from a diverse heritage, setting as much a new standard for themselves as that for their chamber colleagues. Pressler and his chamber partners evolved a recognizable ensemble dynamics, from which an interpretative symbiosis resulted. Openness to such musical personalities between chamber partners was of decisive importance to assure the appreciation of the compositions at hand. Their mutual music understanding produced concerts like the ones we witnessed tonight, concerts which we even as audience could boldly be proud.

Schumann’s Piano Quartet in E Flat Major, Op.47 is one of musician’s favorite treasure pieces of the chamber repertoire. Under the richness in sounds of our musicians’ instruments, we were revealed to their secrets. Menahem Pressler blended his Old World grandeur with the energy of New World generations of Alexander Kerr, Roberto Díaz and Paul Watkins. The result of this chemistry between our musicians resulted a near-ideal balance of power and grace, and there were even reminiscences of old-fashioned portamento (sliding between notes) to be heard in the bowing strings of Kerr, Diaz and Watkins. It was surely very hard for the many of us attending, whose tastes may extend beyond standard chamber repertoire but not be pleased and moved by their performance. Pressler was a sympathetic partner, showing his usual warm and introspective playing, in which fans of the traditional Beaux Arts Trio would have conveniently recognized from Pressler’s exquisite touch on the keyboard. Meanwhile, Kerr and Watkins performed with much empathy and lyricism, somewhat weakened in Díaz’s case, though nonetheless an outstanding sense of melodic line he has strived to achieved. What was impressively remarkable was Watkins’ sweet cello voice in the slow movement of the Quartet, where time seemed to even have stopped for a brief moment. Their overall tempi were brisk, well-planned throughout, and surely a great introduction to what we audience shall anticipate for the remainder of the evening.

Brahms and his first Piano Quartet in G Minor, Op.25 were nothing short of symphonic in scale – and with our chamber musicians, it spanned the second half of the evening for as long as three quarters of an hour. Their interpretation was nothing short of grandeur, romanticism and espressivo as the work demanded. The thematic material hinted the dimensions that reminded trained ears to the opening first movement of the Symphony No.4, and possibly played a significant role in Arnold Schöenberg’s decision to arrange the quartet for a large orchestra, attempting what some may call a kind of “Brahms’s Fifth Symphony.” Our musicians spoke genuinely on stage as much as they spoke to their audience offstage. How nobly it was as they set out the themes in the first movement, and how wistfully they explore the nostalgic Intermezzo. For those who had previously heard Mr. Kerr in performance, one of the interesting facets of Kerr’s musicianship which did not always get its due is in his strong sense in phrasing, the way he stretched a Romantic point while staying within a Classical framework. The hymn-like Andante con moto is a movement in which many ensembles get challenged by, but not for Pressler and his partners. The musicians phrased the main theme gloriously, in broad spans, transforming it elevated as if on the breath of a prima donna. In the dashing Rondo alla zingarese, Kerr’s inheritance as one of the most successful pupils of Josef Gingold is much in evidence, while with his own exciting playing, Pressler used the Finale to provide both colour and harmonic surprises, where he effectively translated the piano part into what sounded like cymbal effects. The artistic visions of Pressler, Kerr, Díaz and Watkins, as demonstrated in this pinnacle Brahms Piano Quartet, surely entranced the many of us music aficionados attending, including celebrated music faculties of the Royal Conservatory of Music.

To reward the rounds of standing ovations from tonight’s full-house attendees, Pressler announced the encore to one of Brahms’s most romantic movement of his composition output, the Third Movement of the Piano Quartet No.3 in C Minor, Op.60. The cello cantilena in which Watkins opened the encore was profound and heartfelt. The nearly 9-minute encore was synonymous to an intimate love letter, almost with a sighing sentiment. Our musicians produced an evening like one endless melody after another. The encore was at place like a final chapter to a great novel rather than a passage that transcended by, and this fun magical partnership of Pressler and his Friends tonight promised to be a new beginning, rather than a mark to an end.

Patrick P.L. Lam



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