The Spokane String Quartet Tuesday, Nov. 18, The Met
Romantic music can be powerful stuff, or merely beautiful. The Spokane String Quartet opened its 1997-98 season Tuesday night at The Met with gripping performances of two of the most intense masterpieces of the 19th century. Neither beauty nor power was sacrificed in either performance.
Franz Schubert’s last string quartet, the Quartet No. 15 in G major, is a long piece, taking about 45 minutes to play. But it summarizes Schubert’s emotional world - the drama, the sweetness, the anger, the playfulness - in a way no shorter work could contain. It is hard to imagine this quartet as the work written by a 28-year-old.
It was a daring move to begin any concert, let alone a season opener, with a work so emotionally and physically exhausting. The dare paid off.
There were patches of wayward intonation as the violins soared into their highest registers and minor slips here and there. But nothing really important stood between the audience and Spokane Quartet’s journey through Schubert’s intense emotional terrain. Gentle passages were interrupted with whiplash chords. Kelly Farris’ violin often followed John Marshall’s cello like a shadow, echoing or elaborating the cello’s themes. The group brought a playful bounce to the finale, but the players made clear the undercurrent of restless uncertainty Schubert expressed even in the most joyous moments of this work.
Pianist James Edmonds joined three members of the quartet for Brahms’ Piano Quartet in C minor, a work equally demanding for its turbulent intensity. In 35 years of hearing Edmonds’ work as a soloist - but mainly as a consummate chamber player and as an unrivaled accompanist - I have always stood in awe of his gifts as a collaborative musician. His playing Tuesday simply reconfirmed my admiration.
This Brahms’ Piano Quartet contains some of the most autobiographical music Brahms ever wrote. As the quartet’s new violist Karen Walthinsen said in remarks before the work was played, it reflects the composer’s turbulent feelings for Clara Schumann, wife of Brahms’ mentor Robert Schumann. The love and anguish and despair was all there in Tuesday’s performance. Bravo to Marshall for his ardent playing of Brahms’ great “love song” in the cello solo of the Andante.
Another bravo to Tuesday’s Met audience - quiet, attentive and enthusiastic.
It was a reminder of just how important a fine audience is to a fine performance.