BEETHOVEN AND BRAHMS
Queensland Symphony Orchestra Studio, Russell St., South Brisbane
Sunday February 23, 2020
Opening this year’s series of recitals, the Chamber Players of the QSO presented a lop-sided hour-and-a-bit’s music on Sunday afternoon, played to a large audience that showed excitement and enthusiasm for the main work: the mighty Brahms Piano Quintet in F minor. As A prelude, we heard Beethoven’s Wind Sextet in E flat, Op. 71 although that number is an inaccuracy if you’re expecting a score to come from the era of the Ghost Piano Trio, the Emperor Concerto and Fidelio. This sextet comes from 1796, the time of the first two cello sonatas and the Piano Sonata No. 4 in E flat.
To be honest, this sextet is pretty unremarkable with only a few bursts of action for the first clarinet and the leading horn to raise your temperature level. Perhaps more gripping material will follow later as the orchestra observes Beethoven’s 250 birthday. At the next chamber recital in April, the program contains the first of the Rasumovsky string quartets; in the following month Guy Braunstein, once the Berlin Philharmonic’s concertmaster. is soloist and conductor for the Violin Concerto which he brings a few days later to the Gold Coast, along with the Coriolan Overture and the Romance in F arranged for flute rather than violin soloist. During June, the orchestra takes this Romance arrangement and the Symphony No. 7 to Toowoomba and airs the Egmont Overture back in QPAC.
August has Simone Young conducting the Choral Symphony and supporting Jan Lisiecki’s efforts in the G Major Piano Concerto. October sees three performances of the Symphony No. 5 over two days, and the next month concludes the celebrations with the Piano Concerto No. 5 featuring the estimable Behzod Abduraimov as soloist. So, the observance is respectable but not over the top: three of the landmark symphonies, the last two piano concertos, the Violin Concerto, an early string quartet, two overtures and a romance in unoriginal format. But first this divertimento sextet, which was preceded by Beethoven’s only other piece for the combination of clarinets, bassoons and horns: the March in B flat WoO 29. which lasts barely 90 seconds.
Involved in the sextet performance were three principals – Brian Catchlove (Acting Associate Clarinet), David Mitchell (Associate Bassoon), and Alex Miller (Associate Horn) – with three regulars in Kate Travers (clarinet), Evan Lewis (bassoon) and Lauren Manuel (horn). Their ensemble work proved to be functional, generally accurate, fairly rough in balance. The work is not taxing but it has some rapid semiquaver runs to pepper up its benign breezy warmth. Catchlove did not seem secure in the 2 1/2-octave scale passage that brightens the first movement Exposition; more persuasive work came in the lead-up to the pre-Recapitulation fermata where we were treated to an unexpected, just-long-enough cadenza. The second horn line experiences a couple of arpeggio-rich bars near the Allegro‘s conclusion and these were close to error-free; like the playing itself, the product was rough around the edges.
When the clarinets enunciated the principal melody of the following Adagio, the duet work failed to satisfy after an empathetic statement from Mitchell; Catchlove and Travers sounded unmatched working at the octave so that, although the intonation impressed as accurate and clean, the timbral combination lacked mutual warmth. I didn’t understand why the group slowed down the pace for the Scherzo‘s Trio; it’s common practice, I know, but you really have to suit the tempo to music that is worth lingering over. Sadly, the horns were over-prominent in the outer sections – or possibly we relished their absence from the Trio‘s action. This beefiness from the brass figured again in the finale where the clarinet melody line was drowned in the opening bar’s output. Miller’s burbling triplets spiced up the action in the first episode. But the balance problem emerged as this performance’s major shortfall; the sextet may be early Beethoven but this heady, bull-at-a-gate mode of attack does little service to a structure that has good bones if little meat.
You could say much the same about the Brahms’ treatment where the outer movements rose to high points of weighty dynamic output but ended in beating the audience around its collective head with an excess of punch. Anna Grinsberg took up the piano cudgels for this mighty score. She was joined by first violins Warwick Adeney (Concertmaster) and Shane Chen (Principal), viola Bernard Hoey, and cello Hyung Suk Bae (Associate Principal) in a reading that seemed to work hard to convince you of the composer’s struggle in shaping his material, but made an overall impression of jumping from one from one bear hug to the next, a chain of force-filled grapplings.
The group repeated the exposition to Brahms’ first movement and it was quickly obvious that Grinberg was in control – which some say is a necessary positioning for the pianist in this work. The repeat was, in fact, well worth the time as the musicians showed more group awareness, both violins ramping up their lines’ vehemence and pressure. Then, the recoil at Letter A into more sentimental material proved effective, possibly as sheer relief from the previous dynamic pressure-cooker. Adeney sounded cautious during his exposed 8-bar solo at the development’s opening but he was not alone in handling these complex pages without assurance. By the time of the return to taws at bar 172, it sounded as if the interpretation was being driven by its inbuilt impetus rather than by a fully determined plan.
After an eloquent and long statement from Grinberg to open the moving Andante second movement, you might have anticipated a similar warmth when the strings eventually had their turn with the gently swelling second theme at bar 26 but the Chen/Adeney partnership gained in warmth only some time further along when the action became more intense. It was at this stage of the reading that you became aware of Hyung’s unflappable presence, sustaining the cello line without the same sweeping and swooping as obtained in the upper reaches of the group. Actually, this movement entire would have benefited from a more lingering approach, less anxiety about getting through its finely dovetailed segments. From previous experience, you expect an emotional benison to be brought about through the crowded 6ths and 3rds of the final bars; not so this time, because sufficient care and tenderness was lacking in those simple three-note phrases.
With the Scherzo, once more the impression was of over-exertion – in this instance, applied very early at the first fortissimo starting at bar 22 and maintained for some time with the added thrill of several sforzandi. After this card reveal, the players had little space to negotiate, missing out on the detached brilliance that should counter any preceding mobile brooding from bar 57, and their lead-up to the C Major Trio proved to be a thundering welter, the piano disappearing in the last pages of the Scherzo repeat. What we heard was packed with splash but lacking in subtlety.
Grinberg took over in the Allegro non troppo finale at the point where her doubling action becomes all-encompassing at Letter A. Matters got even more intense in the thundering octave triplets at bar 137 where the temptation to belt and thump out the notes has to be resisted. Yes, you had your hiatus points, and very welcome they were, like the un pochettino piu animato interlude for exposed strings, and that antiphonal/responsorial relief at Letter E lasting up to bar 237. But the performers once again moved through such passages with little grace, in a hurry to gt to the meaty full-bodied passages where the keyboard could pound and the strings could force their unisons and octaves into dominance of a kind.
You have to make allowances: these musicians are not accustomed to playing in the groups set up for the QSO’s Sunday chamber music series. Their bread and butter is orchestral work, not this kind of exposed linear interplay. And, as I found in Melbourne, rehearsal time is limited and musicians have to rely on their peers’ extra-orchestral experience and honed intuition in handling this music. As I wrote above, the large Studio audience for the event gave a warm response to this Brahms interpretation and, at the end, all performers/competitors were left standing – as was the composer. Yet, to me, it all came down to that well-worn report card summation: could do better.