With commonality of the same instrumentation, the three works offered in this program had as much to say about the composers in their time as the audience/performers of today.
Studying in Vienna, teenage Gustav Mahler was surrounded by grand ideas and giants of his craft. His only surviving chamber piece is remarkable on several fronts. Its overall slightly melancholic tone most certainly speaks to the inner turmoil of youth, yet even with “just” four players, one can feel the orchestra trying to emerge—these forces serving their purpose as the testing ground but failing to fulfill the composer’s need for a much larger canvas on which to construct his art. Little wonder the other “small” compositions were destroyed.
Pianist Bernadene Blaha immediately established herself as a master of sincere understatement and sympathetic support. The strings moved convincingly forward; always mindful of each other and the details of the score. The muted transition was especially fine—how entirely understandable to hear some Bruckner triplets seep into the fabric, marvellously setting up the thoughtful return. The last, large unison came across as oddly pedantic, before the final adieu vanished into contented memory.
Turina’s offering, like many sonatas, consisted of long, colourful dialogues between the bowed instruments and the keyboard. The opening “Lento” demonstrated near-perfect ensemble and afforded cellist Jack Mendelsohn the opportunity of displaying his consummate phrasing. The only blemish being a few pitch vagaries from violinist Mark Skazinetsky.
A compelling sense of direction and flow was immediately established in the “Vivo.” Here, Skazinetsky delivered an impassioned solo intervention that was just a few drops of Latino blood short from superb.
The finale was a delightful buffet of tempi and tone replete with melodramatic tremoli and sensitive melodic crafting from cello and violin. Once again Blaha was with her colleagues at every turn, yet the overall balance left violist Chau Luk’s stellar contributions too much in the background. Perhaps switching seats with Mendelsohn would help (being on the audience’s right, the violist’s instrument faced back into the stage and the time-worn acoustic panels). Revealing their more regular work as orchestral musicians, the last big string unison needed to throw caution to the wind and just let Turina’s artistic impetus fly unbridled into the hall.
Following the generous intermission (both in time and complimentary beverages and cookies), I slipped up to the balcony to judge the acoustics from above. At once, the blend was better, revealing Luk as an exceptionally sensitive accompanist and ever-capable soloist.
As interesting as the first half was, in many ways the music-making started here. Compositionally, this score stands head and shoulders above the rest: Brahms writes for four equals with a manner of inevitability that belies the overworked notion that he “summed up” rather than led concert music to a new and singular domain. Who else sounds like Brahms?
This performance was notable for its compelling ebb and flow as the musicians seized hold of their moments in the sun (Mendelsohn’s famous cantilena line in the “Andante”—wondrously foreshadowing the middle movement of the violin concerto to come—was outstanding; Skazinetsky was heard to his best advantage in the opening measures of the “Allegro comodo”; moments later, Luk’s melodic interventions had the already attentive crowd galvanized; having been somewhat thwarted by the enormous challenges on the “Scherzo”, Blaha tore through the finale with authority that, deservedly, left the audience well satisfied).
And what a fine crowd they were: not an electronic interruption was heard (a first in a long, long time); between movements, the savvy group rightly savoured what had just been played, along with the musicians who, likewise, were in no hurry to jump into the next frame as if the last train was nearing the station.
The special magic of this night came with the happy realization that “old” music rendered with love, care and respect can command the attention of today’s patrons before resuming their modern lives where it seems there’s less and less time to smell the roses, much less truly listen to our most universal art. JWR