Andsnes and friends serve up a memorable afternoon of Brahms

April 13, 2016
Violinist James Ehnes, pianist Leif Ove Andsnes, violist Tabea Zimmermann and cellist Clemens Hagen performed Brahms' complete piano quartets Sunday at Symphony Center. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Violinist James Ehnes, pianist Leif Ove Andsnes, violist Tabea Zimmermann and cellist Clemens Hagen performed Brahms’ complete piano quartets Sunday at Symphony Center. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Performing just one of Brahms’ mighty piano quartets demands four players with sterling technique, musical depth and physical stamina. 

Sunday afternoon at Chicago’s Symphony Center, pianist Leif Ove Andsnes and colleagues provided the full Johannes, performing all three of Brahms piano quartets in a program spanning nearly three hours with one intermission.

The Norwegian pianist was joined by violist Tabea Zimmermann, cellist Clemens Hagen, and violinist James Ehnes, the last a late substitute for the previously announced Christian Tetzlaff.

Throughout the afternoon, the artists betrayed not a hint of fatigue–especially striking considering they had performed the same challenging program just the previous night in New York. Far from it–their performances were polished to a fine sheen, with close ensemble cohesion, distinctive individual playing and a degree of expressive insight that at times proved revelatory.

In many ways one finds the essence of Brahms in his chamber works even more than his symphonies and concertos. There is an unsentimental stoic quality in Brahms’ best music that is affecting in its noble restraint—a sense that the world is not necessarily a great or even a good place, but one can find a way to live in it and appreciate the fleeting beauties even with the prevailing sadness and tragedy.

The music was performed in chronological order, leading off with the Piano Quartet No. 1 in G minor, Op. 25, the most often-played of the set.

Andsnes’ poised yet flexible keyboard work led a lean, incisive performance, which kept the large opening Allegro’s drama and architecture in fine balance. For such big-boned music, textures throughout had impressive clarity and transparency. The string players brought well-tempered warmth to the gracious main theme of the Andante, with apt martial swagger to the march-like middle section.

The final Rondo with its insistent gypsy-flavored main theme was thrown off with unbridled fire and speed. The string players plumbed an almost klezmer quality in the nostalgic contrasting melody, and the closing section was thrilling in its speed and velocity with dazzling keyboard work by Andsnes.

That blazing performance had one thinking that the rest of the afternoon might prove anticlimactic. If anything the insight and musicianship grew stronger and deeper with each ensuing work.

The epic Piano Quartet No. 2 in A major, Op. 26–the longest of the set–was contemporaneous with its predecessor. Again the players held the vast first movement together with striking skill, relaxed yet flowing with no longueurs. So too in the sprawling finale with its abundance of contrasted thematic material, which culminated in a rollicking coda.

Yet it was the Poco adagio of Op. 26 that provided the finest playing of the afternoon. Hushed and concentrated, the musicians brought a searching intimacy to this music–as with the rapt conversation between Hagen’s burnished cello and Ehnes’ sweet-toned violin–that was haunting in its rarefied depth of expression.

The Quartet No. 3 in C minor, Op. 65, is a darker, more brooding work. Led once again by Andsnes, the players had the full measure of this stormy, aggressive opening movement as well as the restless nervous energy of the ensuing Scherzo.

A respite is provided in the Andante, launched by Hagen’s dark, eloquent cello and taken up by the other string players, here performed with beautiful playing of great sensitivity.

The frenetic final movement with its abrupt coda provided an emphatic payoff to an extraordinary afternoon of music, which proved a highlight of this season.

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