Schubert, Weinberg, Brahms

The Jerusalem Quartet and András Schiff provided a full, nearly orchestral, sound for their chamber performance in the Mozarteum this evening, as part of the Salzburg Festival.

The program opened with the Quartet Movement in c minor by Franz Schubert, who never wrote the other movements for a planned work.  This movement goes down with the two movements of his “Unfinished Symphony” under the “what could have been” column.  But like those two symphonic movements, which actually work as an abridged symphony, this quartet movement also works as a stand-alone piece.  The Israelis built up a big sound, capturing all the nuances of Schubert’s genius.

The piece also served as a good warm-up for the next work, in which Schiff joined the quartet for Moishe Weinberg‘s Piano Quintet.  Weinberg, a Polish Jew, fled Warsaw when the Germans invaded Poland in 1939 (they murdered his entire family) and got stuck inside the Soviet Union, which had meanwhile invaded Poland from the other direction.  In Russia, his new family (through his new wife, daughter of the great Yiddish actor Solomon Mikhoels) also got murdered by the anti-Semitic Soviet regime.  Dmitri Schostakowitsch, with whom he became a close friend, personally rescued Weinberg from another purge of Jews.  I discovered Weinberg’s music on recordings early in 2015, and became intrigued – but although Schostakowitsch valued him very highly as a composer, his music is today rarely performed.  I had unfortunately missed a concert of his music in Vienna last Summer, but sought out this concert specifically to hear something live.

The Quintet did not disappoint.  Written in 1944, the work captured the mixed trauma Weinberg must have experienced as he settled in Moscow (with Schostakowitsch’s help) after escaping Poland via Minsk and Tashkent (!).  Although containing kernels of the conventional, it went off in all directions.  Here a march off into oblivion, there a warped waltz performed presto, there a slow funereal movement interrupted by fanfares (warning blasts? signs of hopeful redemption approaching over the horizon?), and concluding with a difficult final movement based on what sounded like a off-kilter jig, played by the instruments in succession, in unison, in round, and ultimately against each other, before dropping off into a pianissimo melancholic abyss, followed by a long silence before applause.  The five musicians handled this exhilarating work with great verve, approaching a Schostakowitsch-sized orchestral complexity, keeping the audience on the edge of our seats: what on earth would Weinberg bring next?

The rest of the concert, after the intermission, was anti-climactic, featuring a lone work: Johannes Brahms‘ Piano Quintet.  At the time of its premiere, contemporaries regarded Brahms’ Piano Quintet as following the legacy of Beethoven and Schubert – which may be true, except those two composers had been dead for nearly forty years by then, betraying Brahms’ complete lack of originality.  The quality of tonight’s performance and the technical prowess of Brahms notwithstanding, this work had nothing to say, particularly coming as it did after the Weinberg.  The musicians did produce a build up of real tension for the third movement scherzo, but it was a build up to… just another unrelated movement.  All four movements were quite fine works, but Brahms failed to connect them other than the setting for a quartet plus piano.  Indeed, they would each have held up just fine as individual single-movement works, as demonstrated during the encore, when the group performed a reprise of the third movement scherzo on its own.

My only quibble, therefore, with tonight’s performance: they probably should have reversed the order of the Weinberg and Brahms quintets, and sent us out with Weinberg’s moving pianissimo into the summer night.

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