Old World Charm
LAWRENCE BUDMEN listens to the Philharmonia Quartett Berlin
playing Brahms, Mozart and Beethoven

If Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) is viewed as the conservative guardian of the Austro-German musical tradition, his music is infused with the greatest reverence for the creative giants who preceded him. Bach's contrapuntal mastery finds voice in Brahms's repeated use of fugue and passacaglia forms. Above all Brahms worshiped Beethoven and was concerned about comparisons between that master's works and his music. He was also part of a broader nineteenth century romantic era that found Mendelssohn, Schubert, and Brahms's friend Robert Schumann writing at white heat. A strong European performance tradition took root around the works of these creative giants. That Central European performance style is still very much alive. The Philharmonia Quartett Berlin brought their unique view of Brahms to the Omni Colonnade Hotel in Coral Gables, Florida, USA on 3 February 2004 in an eleventh anniversary concert for the Coral Gables Mainly Mozart Festival. The program was presented by the Consul General of the Federal Republic of Germany and the Coral Gables Cultural Affairs Council.

The Quartet in B flat major Op 67 is Brahms's third and final published string quartet. The score dates from the composer's forty fourth year (1876). The third movement Agitato (Allegretto non troppo) inspires one of those gorgeously romantic melodic confections that only Brahms could write. Like the Poco Allegretto of the composer's third symphony, the wistful melody of this movement gives the score poignancy that stamps it as one of the great creations of the romantic era. From the first vigorous chords of the Vivace, this score is Brahms at his most inspired.

The Philharmonia Quartett Berlin represents a direct link to the music's creative roots. Composed of members of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra (Daniel Strabrawa and Christian Stadelmann, violins; Neithard Resa, viola; and Jan Diesselhorst, cello), this group's warm, rich string sound conjures up another world. Their music making is less concerned with surface brilliance than with Old World charm and musical ambience. The lustrous string sound of the Berlin Orchestra was instilled by Herbert von Karajan, enriched by Claudio Abbado, and is now being retooled by Sir Simon Rattle. The four members of that famous string section have been deeply imbued with a distinctive approach to Brahms's music. It was wonderful to hear their tender, whole hearted embrace of the Poco Allegretto con Variazioni finale. The musical passion of an entire era seemed to permeate the performance. The lower strings (particularly Resa's unusually prominent viola) were highly distinguished. The performance was compromised by Strabrawa's uncertain intonation and sometimes dry tone.

The Berlin foursome's best offering was Mozart's Quartet in G K387 -- the first of the 'Haydn quartets' -- Mozart's tribute to the father of the string quartet. From the opening notes of the Allegro vivace assai, the Berlin players conjured up Mozart in the best Viennese manner. (There has always been intense competition between the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonic Orchestras when it comes to Mozart performances.) The Menuetto: Allegretto had true European elegance and grace -- qualities often lacking in the performances of more high powered string quartets. The Andante cantabile had an almost operatic quality. (Violinist-conductor Alexander Schneider once noted that all of Mozart's music derives from opera.) The concluding Molto allegro was vigorously played but did not lack wit and charm. Truly idiomatic Mozart bathed in warmly sonorous tonal hues!

In his superb commentary the evening's host University of Miami music Professor Frank Cooper pointed out that the year 1809 was the worst of times for Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827). The composer had to take refuge from Napoleon's bombardment of Vienna and try to preserve his fragile hearing. Yet in one of music history's most unlikely occurrences, Beethoven created three of his sunniest works in that terrible year -- the Emperor Concerto, the Les Adieux Sonata, and the String Quartet in E flat Op 74 (The Harp). That quartet is one of Beethoven's most delightful scores. The four Berlin players gave this music a sonorous, intense but somewhat uneven performance. The plucking of strings in the first movement (which resulted in the score's nickname) was tellingly projected. The Presto marking of the Scherzo was accomplished with style and vigor. The players brought character and charm to the concluding theme and variations. Yet the two violins were not always precise. Occasionally the violinists' playing turned harsh. Yet the broad outlines of Beethoven's music were well served.

The intimate atmosphere of the Omni Colonnade ballroom brought the audience into the world of the music salon -- a connection to the composers' world. In this glowing ambience, the idiomatic playing of the Berlin quartet was a real treat. A wonderful preview of the coming Mainly Mozart Festival!

Copyright 7 February 2004 Lawrence Budmen, Miami Beach, USA

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