Exciting Brahms in New York from Ursula Oppens and the Cassatt Quartet

United StatesUnited States  Barber, Beethoven, Brahms: Cassatt String Quartet, Ursula Oppens (piano), Bargemusic, Brooklyn, 3.8.2011 (GG)

Barber: String Quartet No. 1, Op. 11
String Quartet No. 14 in C# Minor, Op. 131
Piano Quintet in F Minor, Op.34

Musicians are like athletes; they need to practice and prepare in order to make the difficult possible, even ordinary. But even the most brilliant musicians, like the most brilliant athletes, need to prepare. Spontaneous excellence is still possible with a lack of practice, but even with inspiration also far less likely to occur, while failure of one kind or another is far more likely.

This is the problem that plagued the Cassatt String Quartet’s Sunday afternoon concert at Bargemusic. The strongest, most consistent moments were as clearly due to thorough preparation, just as the spottiest, weakest and even borderline disastrous moments appeared to show a lack of same. All the music on the program was great: it was advertised as a “masterpieces” event, and all of it was difficult, in the sense that the composers offered technical, intellectual and emotional challenges that the musicians were not always able to meet.

Take the Barber quartet: the Cassatt players dug into the fervid first movement with real intensity and an admirable clarity. The internal voices came through with substance, and the group attacked the phrases with verve and relish. But that focus and determination dissipated with the second movement, famous as the original version of the composer’s Adagio for Strings, although in this original form certainly much leaner and emotionally more excoriating than consoling. But the players never picked up on this change of tone, dutifully delivering the notes but not finding anything in the music worth mentioning, as if they had spent too little time to make their own discovery. The final movement was a return to form, but the performance overall seemed unbalanced and unsatisfying.

I write as kindly as I can when I say the Beethoven C# Minor quartet was a disaster. To hear a fine, professional group play so poorly is shocking, and demands some explanation. Following Occam’s Razor, the only one I’m left with is lack of preparation. The notes, rhythms and dynamics of some of the music (especially the first movement) were there as written on the page, but there was no Beethoven there, and no Cassatt Quartet, at even the best moments in the performance. This gave a hint that the musicians were not familiar enough with the piece to have assimilated the notes so that they could be played without undue concentration, allowing the music to express itself. There was also some extremely rough playing, just this side of sight-reading, and there were stretches of the long, complex Andante movement and the following Presto where the group’s intonation was so poor that it threatened unintended modulations to distant, highly chromatic keys. This was the sound of a group in music they did not know, and the piece should probably have been stricken from the program.

It was the Brahms that clearly occupied the bulk of the rehearsal time for the concert, and with the great Ursula Oppens joining the Quartet, the music-making was fine. Oppens is a powerful player, and there were moments when she seemed on the verge of muscling her way through, but that added to the inherent excitement. The Cassatt seemed to defer to her ideas, but in performance were her equals. The music was confident, allowing the energy and intensity of Brahms to expand freely. The internal dialogue between the piano and the strings was clear, lively and truly incisive; everyone had something to say. The combination of pleasure and satisfaction in the playing – plus relief that in the context of the concert, it had come off successfully – cleared away any lingering ill feelings from the opening half.

George Grella