Review: Schumann, Brahms piano quintets: Truly performances at Close Encounters with Music

Great Barrington — The first concert of season 26 for Close Encounters With Music (CEWM) on October 21 was billed as an event of titanic significance. “Genre bending masterworks performed by an all-star cast.” “The pinnacle of chamber music.” If such language sounds to you like marketing hype, then what you are about to read will exceed your personal bounds of credulity (i.e., you won’t believe it). 

Chamber music has always been the locus of strange magic. Inexplicable voodoo. It’s always been that way, and most CEWM concertgoers are aware of how quickly a concert performance can go from ordinary to extraordinary when everything comes together in a perfect storm of musical alchemy. That’s what happened on October 21. CEWM patrons have also learned that sooner or later they’ll be blindsided by a performance so sublime it will defy explanation. This, too, occurred on October 21.

If all you want is a strictly rational account of what happened on the evening of October 21, then perhaps the following will suffice: “Five professional musicians delivered accurate renditions of two works by Schumann and Brahms.” But as anyone who witnessed those performance well knows, such an explanation fails to account for the open-mouthed, deer-in-the headlights expression so many patrons wore throughout the evening. 

Then what does account for it?

To begin with, the pieces on Saturday’s program happen to be two of the world’s all-time most popular chamber music works. Robert Schumann’s Piano Quintet in E-flat Major, Op. 44 and Johannes Brahms’ Piano Quintet in F minor, Op. 34 are monumental masterworks. As such, they have stood the test of time, and today, 175 years after Schumann published Op. 44, both quintets continue to hold their own against legions of worthy rivals. Generations of listeners – expert and novice – have found these works uniquely engaging, enthralling, unforgettable. That’s why it’s safe to say that if these quintets are not major pinnacles of chamber music, then Beethoven was a Saint Bernard, and Schubert is a frozen dessert. But performances of the two can hardly amount to perfect storms of musical alchemy every time a well intentioned ensemble attempts to master them. It requires extraordinarily advanced musicianship to deliver note-perfect performances of either piece, and only the most exceptionally capable musicians will ever go beyond that. 

And exceptional they were on this Saturday evening: Soyeon Kate Lee, piano; Irina Muresanu and Peter Zazofsky, violin; Michael Strauss, viola; Yehuda Hanani, cello. The group’s playing demonstrated remarkable unity: impossibly tight ensemble at the most critical moments, exquisitely nuanced dynamics, all articulations synchronized to highly improbable tolerances. It was stunning and unforgettable. But still not a perfect storm.

For any chamber music ensemble* to reach hurricane strength, every member of the group must not only demonstrate virtuosic technique. They must also possess vast reserves of mature enthusiasm. Informed spirit, if you will. This often makes the crucial difference between a perfunctory performance and an inspired one. And it was spirit that catapulted these quintet performances over the top.

A founding member of the Muir String Quartet and Professor of Violin at the Boston University School of Music, Peter Zazofsky knows something about spirit. He knows how to summon it, channel it, and model it to others. In other words, he knows how to incite excellence in other musicians and draw them into his grand conspiracy, his not-so-secret plot to create perfect storms of musical alchemy. That’s what he did on Saturday, October 21 at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center.