Visions of sublimity

LAWRENCE BUDMEN listens to Yefim Bronfman and the 
American String Quartet



Few composers epitomize the romantic era like Johannes Brahms (1833-1897). His glorious melodies, dark, surging writing for the lower strings, and reverence for composers of the past (Bach, Handel) made him a pillar of the late nineteenth century. (Hungarian folk music often permeated his works.) Brahms's deeply felt instrumental writing and profusion of beautiful melodies (combined with a rigorous sense of musical form) was an inspiration to such diverse composers as Dvorák, Martucci, Sgambati, Reger, and Hindemith. Brahms's Quintet in F Minor for Piano and Strings Op 34 (1864) is one of the true gems of the chamber music repertoire. The Friends of Chamber Music of Miami opened a new concert season with a magnificent performance of the Brahms quintet -- the crowning glory of a terrific program by the American String Quartet on 15 December 2003 at the University of Miami Gusman Concert Hall.

Guest artist Yefim Bronfman is one of the most brilliant and musically probing keyboard artists on today's music scene. Whether capturing the magisterial peaks of Beethoven, the subtle pathos of Mozart, or the sweeping Russian melancholia of Rachmaninoff, Bronfman's performances are unforgettable. His Brahms did not disappoint. From the first softly sonorous piano tones, Bronfman played with a fierce passion that was riveting. His dazzling virtuosity and sweeping tonal palette made the music truly live. Yet the gentle melodic grace of the Andante, un poco Adagio was beautifully filtered through a delicate array of musical shadings and colors. Bronfman evoked visions of the sublime! The demonic energy of the Scherzo: Allegro was breathtaking! Bronfman evoked the entire spectrum of vigor and fury in the Finale: Poco sostenuto. Here was music making of incredible passion and intensity. Performances on this extraordinary level are extremely rare. Bronfman is a great artist!

The American String Quartet is a superb ensemble. Their performance was the very essence of great Brahms -- richly reverberant string playing with that wonderful dark toned undercurrent. They combine the precision and musicality of the Julliard Quartet with the mellow sound of the Guarneri Quartet. (They are the resident quartet at the Aspen Festival and the Manhattan School of Music.) Their collaboration with Bronfman was magnificent. What vitality and glowing ardor they brought to Brahms's opening Allegro non troppo! The entire performance glowed with romantic warmth. As an encore they joined Bronfman in a lilting, virtuosic performance of the Scherzo from the Piano Quintet (1940) by Shostakovich -- a total delight.

The American foursome (Peter Winograd and Laurie Carney, violins; Daniel Avshalomov, viola; and Margo Tatgenhorst Drakos, cello) are all consummate musicians. Together they form one of the world's great quartets! Their playing has the glowing warmth and absolute precision of fine crystal. The String Quartet No 3 in F Major, Op 73 (1946) by Dimitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) begins with a lively Russian folk theme -- at once charming and sarcastic. The bright-toned urgency of Winograd and Carney's violinistic bravura made the Allegretto a joyous celebration of great musicianship. Avshalomov's deeply resonant viola commanded center stage in the agitated Moderato con moto. The relentless energy and fury of the Allegro non troppo recalled the Scherzo of Shostakovich's Tenth Symphony. The quartet's dynamic performance was exhilarating! Shostakovich's slow movements always represent the composer at his most eloquent and deeply personal. The Adagio of this quartet is typically soulful, emotionally wrenching music. The rapt, deeply focused intensity of the quartet's performance was mesmerizing. The concluding Moderato was played with effortless brio -- the soft, questioning ending seeming to fade into another world. A great performance!

The concert opened with the String Quartet in B flat, Op 64 No 3 by Franz Joseph Haydn -- one of that master's less familiar essays in that form. The score is pure Haydn at his best! From the soaring, melodic opening theme of the Vivace assai, this 1790 work is a treasure trove of inspired melodies, elegant and gracious instrumental writing, and well-manicured classicism. The American String Quartet's performance was beguiling. From the shining gleam of Winograd's violin at the outset to the stately warmth of the Adagio, the foursome offered great Haydn playing. They captured the country fiddle wit of the Menuetto: Allegretto as well as its courtly charm. The vivacity and sonorous beauty of the Finale: Allegro con spirito was the whipped cream on the cake -- a delightful performance!

The American String Quartet offered two rarely played scores by great creative artists -- Haydn and Shostakovich. Their magisterial collaboration with Yefim Bronfman on Brahms's masterpiece was a real event! Concerts on this level are rare in any season. Here was artistry of the highest order!


Copyright © 20 December 2003 Lawrence Budmen, Miami Beach, USA


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