JWR Articles: Live Event - The Brahms Cycle Continues (Featured performers: Julie Baumgartel, Patrick Jordan, Margaret Gay, David Louie) - November 10, 2003

The Brahms Cycle Continues

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Cold atmosphere no match for Players' warmth

“It’s almost too cold to play,” announced Margaret Gay, prior to the Rodman Hall performance of two of the most daunting piano quartets in the repertoire. For the resident Ghost (I have her existence on good authority) had bedevilled the furnace to the point that even a committee of an on-duty Commissionaire, off-duty engineer and new landlord (Dr. David Atkinson’s Brock University recently added this historic piece of real estate to the balance sheet—I expect a Tim Hortons outlet within weeks) couldn’t fix.

And so the intrepid foursome and their shivering admirers (with no flasks in circulation, perhaps the post-concert wine tasting should have been moved ahead) hunkered down in a temperature more appropriate for the Grey Cup.

Schumann’s Piano Quartet in E-flat Major (too often passed over by its flashier quintet cousin, both completed in 1842) is an exceptional study in ideas and texture. It gives everyone a chance to shine as soloists and collaborators. With frost rather than sparks providing the atmosphere, it was entirely understandable that pitch and technical passagework would be problematic, but, to their credit, those unavoidable lapses were few and far between.

As usual, pianist David Louie drove this invigorating performance with attentive authority: leading where required, supporting when appropriate. Perhaps the new management might consider finding an instrument worthy of his talent (the ancient Steinway, muddier than ever with the chilled strings, could probably have given more enjoyment as kindling for a bonfire that might also have included some of the framed utterances of confusion that currently cover the walls).

The string players gamely held their own: Julie Baumgartel tore through the score with a full-bodied tone and conviction that drew us all into the music; Margaret Gay brought insight and richness to the “Andante cantabile’s” solo that will linger in memory for years; throughout the proceedings Patrick Jordan provided sensitive accompaniment and capable solo-line additions.

The contrapuntal “Finale” took flight and drew thunderous applause from the hardy fans.

Brahms’ Piano Quartet in A Major failed to find the mood or the magic of his mentor’s opus, yet they lurk intriguingly, just beneath the ink. As was pointed out in Louie’s introductory remarks, Brahms takes more of a strings-versus-piano approach, rather than four equals: in many ways, it’s a lightly instrumented concerto.

Moreover, his rhythmic genius demands closer attention than was paid in Sunday’s reading. Too often the triplets (nimble or broad) lost their way and impact as they morphed dangerously close to duple terrain. As tempi change or phrases push and relax, even greater vigilance must be paid to the flow of inevitability that permeates much of Brahms’ work.

Unfortunately, the “Allegro non troppo” suffered from this uncertainty, which was often exacerbated with undo emphasis on the beginnings of the musical lines rather than the pulse over which they float (or, in the “Finale,” fly).

Still, the entire afternoon was worth our combined perseverance for the exquisite lift in the “Scherzo,” just prior to the first return: the music vanished into a musical “gasp” that was enormously satisfying.

Here’s to the rejuvenation of Rodman Hall (anyone for a theatre-in-the-round set-up?—imagine the improved sightlines) and many more performances there by Niagara’s most eloquent proponents of chamber music. JWR

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Piano Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 47 - Robert Schumann
Piano Quartet in A Major, Op. 36 - Johannes Brahms
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