Supreme Masterpieces, Masterfully Played

United StatesUnited States  Mozart, Kim, and Fauré: Musicians from Marlboro: Hye-Jin Kim and Danbi Um (violins), Rebecca Albers and Shuangshuang Liu (violas), Peter Stumpf (cello), Hyunah Yu (soprano), Kuok-Wai Lio (piano). Benjamin Franklin Hall, American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, 9.10.2015 (BJ)

Mozart: String Quintet in E flat major, K. 614
Kim: Three Poems in French
Fauré: Piano Quartet No. 1 in C minor, Op. 15


Borodin, Shostakovich, and Schubert: Borodin Quartet, David Finckel (cello), Perelman Theater, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 11.10.2015 (BJ)


Borodin: String Quartet No. 2 in D major
Shostakovich: String Quartet No. 8, Op. 110
Schubert: String Quintet in C major, D. 956


By happy chance—or maybe it was deliberate—the first two concerts of the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society’s 2015-2016 season offered the opportunity to hear, within the space of three days, what may well be the two greatest string chamber works ever written for more than four instruments: Mozart’s last essay in the quintet genre he brilliantly pioneered, and Schubert’s only work for five strings.

In the 60 or more years I have loved the Schubert, I do not know offhand how many performances I have previously heard. But I can declare with conviction that none matched the quality of the one fashioned on this occasion by the Borodin Quartet, joined on the second cello part by David Finckel, late of the Emerson Quartet.

The first half of the program had already established the superb standard of musicianship and technique consistently achieved by the long-established (since 1945!) Borodin Quartet. On a previous occasion I singled out for especial praise the “rapt quietude” they brought to a performance of Shostakovich’s Third Quartet, and that characteristic was evident again—after a suitably brilliant reading of their eponymous composer’s Second—in Shostakovich’s most often heard quartet, the even darker and more somber No. 8.

Here the musicians’ ability to sustain hushed sonorities for long periods was counterbalanced by outbursts of multi-stopped aggression that were truly terrifying. Quite aside from the sheer technical security of their playing, their carefully differentiated use and non-use (the latter often in final chords) of vibrato created a vast repertoire of colors, at times recalling the open sonorities of an Elizabethan or Jacobean consort of viols.

In David Finckel the Borodinists had selected a colleague fully worthy of their own high standards. His elegantly subtle pizzicatos in the sublime slow movement and his ferocious triplet figures in that movement’s volcanic middle section were equally impressive. Altogether he made an ideal partner and foil for the quartet’s own cellist, Vladimir Balshin, whose voluminous and marvelously focused tone reminded me of Bernard Gregor-Smith, the similarly sonorous foundation of the sadly now retired Lindsay Quartet’s sound, while second violinist Sergei Lomovsky and violist Igor Naidin formed a kind of holding cell in the middle of the texture, under Ruben Aharonian’s assured and stunningly colored handling of the first violin part.

If I had been slightly less impressed two days earlier by my favorite Mozart string quintet as played by a group of musicians from the Marlboro Festival, this was because what I heard (leaving their omission of the second repeat in the opening movement mathematically out of the equation) seemed to me to constitute four-fifths of a superb performance. Together with Peter Stumpf—whom it was a pleasure to see back on a local stage 13 years after the end of his distinguished tenure as associate principal cellist of the Philadelphia Orchestra— second violinist Danbi Um, and violists Rebecca Albers and Shangshuang Liu offered everything that could have been asked of them in terms of eloquent line, taut ensemble, and ingratiating tone.

It was clear that the first violinist in this group, Hye-Jin Kim, is a musician fully capable of matching their efforts, but there was a hell-for-leather quality to her conception of the Mozart work that I found hard to take. I am far from advocating the sort of walking-on-eggshells way of playing Mozart that was at one time too prevalent. As Russell Sherman observes in his wonderful book Piano Pieces, there is no point in making music if you are not prepared to take risks—but there must surely be some limit to their appropriateness in the music of any given composer. It is better, moreover, if those risks are interpretative rather than technical, whereas Ms Kim’s recklessness resulted in far too much smeared phrasing and approximate intonation, and in a harshness—indeed, a brashness—of tone that accorded ill with her four colleagues’ cultured sound.

The second half of this program was French in inspiration. The late Earl Kim, born to Korean immigrants and a longtime faculty member of Princeton and Harvard universities, was a composer noted especially for his vocal music, which often reflected his enthusiasm for French poetry. His settings of Apollinaire and Rimbaud in Where Grief Slumbers, for soprano with harp and string orchestra, are particularly attractive, the absence of double basses from the orchestral complement enhancing the airy lightness of the textures. Kim’s Three Poems in French (two by Verlaine and one by Baudelaire) may not achieve quite the same vividness of expression, but this too is highly individual and finely crafted music, and it was performed with unwavering intensity and much beauty of sound by Hyunah Yu with Hye-Jin Kim (much more in her element here), Danbi Um, Rebecca Albers, and Peter Stumpf.

To conclude, Ms Um, Ms Liu, and Mr Stumpf were joined by a young pianist whose performance of Schubert’s G-major Sonata last season impressed me enormously, Kuok-Wai Lio, in a performance of the first of Fauré’s two piano quartets that powerfully captured the sheer romantic afflatus of the music. This is a work that might usefully serve to correct some listeners’ preconceptions of the composer as possessed of delicacy but no notable passion. It is music that pulls no punches, blending skillful design with compelling emotional heft. It should be heard more often.

Bernard Jacobson

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