No Lullabies: The Brahms Piano Quartets at Carolina Performing Arts

Carolina Performing Arts is on a serious roll this month, with an astounding variety of concerts, several of them featuring exciting collaborations by high-level artists. Last night saw the return to Memorial Hall of Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes, along with a trio of string players, to present all three of Johannes Brahms’ piano quartets in one program. Since they performed the First Piano Quartet together at the Salzburg Festival in 2010, Andsnes, German violinist Christian Tetzlaff, German violist Tabea Zimmermann and  Austrian cellist Clemens Hagen had worked on the music and planned an intercontinental tour. The Carolina presentation was the first of three US dates: tomorrow the group–now slightly altered–will play the Isaac Stern Memorial Concert in Carnegie Hall; then on to Chicago.


Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes. Photo: Oezguer Albayrak.

Earlier this week, Canadian James Ehnes replaced Tetzlaff, who, according to Andsnes’ website, cancelled his participation in the US portion of the tour to stay home and await the arrival of his family’s new baby. One can only laud him for this, no matter the personal disappointment. (I’d heard Tetzlaff with the eponymous Quartet in 2012, and was eager to be again bewitched.) Fortunately Ehnes, although a decade younger, is also a virtuoso, with a pure tone and a burning feeling for the Romantic, who is hardly unacquainted with Brahms.

Making chamber music is an intimate undertaking, and it must have been difficult for all the players to make the change of violinists work for the good. Andsnes and Tetzlaff have played to together for half their lives (both are 50 this year), and of course the original group had been immersed together in this music for quite a while. Now, instead of reaping the reward of their close work, three of them had the challenge of reaching for perfection with a near-stranger, and the fourth had the joy of being the replacement, the fill-in.

For the first two movements of the No. 1, Ehnes was obviously tense, so tense that he was rolling his neck and his sound was so attenuated as to be almost inaudible. But near the end of the second movement, there was an instant of aural perfection, and you could see the looks shooting among the players, feel the tension break and the energy rise. When he laid on his bow for the Andante con moto, Ehnes’ silken sound wound smooth and balanced with Zimmermann’s sumptuous viola and Hagen’s cello sucre brûlée –dark and syrupy and deliciously crackled at the edges. From then on, the warm colors and the linear textures of the strings were in sharp focus, while from behind and between and around them cascaded the cool colors, the burgeoning crystals and tumbling rocks of Andsnes piano. The almost symphonic Andante and the closing Rondo alla Zingarese were so magnificent that much of the audience surged to its feet before the notes had ceased ringing. The players looked slightly stunned.

And it only got better after intermission.

The No. 2 paints a various terrain of emotion–love probably–with sprightly prisms of sound and shadowy velvet sonorities, with luxe textures and bits that scrape and prick. There are wonderful cello parts, and Hagen moved with delicate certainty among the muted scratching, the woeful foreboding and the joyous sensuosity. Again, the golden tones of the strings were set into maximum relief by the cool, belling piano notes. Andsnes has a touch that makes the notes swell out and hover, like ballet dancers who get a little more lift once they’re in the air. The music seems almost physical, you can feel it shaping the space, with sound and its absence. But to me, the best part is the color, and the light, that he somehow generates with his playing. In the No. 2 particularly (of the three quartets) the piano made a long series of ephemeral landscapes–meadowy, riverine, crystal-riven, boulder-strewn–metaphors for the terrain of love.

That same terrain in hindsight informs the Piano Quartet No. 3. Here are love and madness, in their awful wonder, now at a remove–passions being thought about, remembered, their powers unmitigated, but 20 years away in time. Back and forth the motifs go, echoing, alternating, circling, repeating, connecting, and the thinking brain delights, suffers and is resigned to the permanence of the past. Stunningly beautiful,  the No. 3 is the shortest of the three quartets, distilled by a mature composer still looking for the truth of the matter, and interpreted by mature players looking for the same thing. A very lucky audience in Memorial Hall heard them find it on April 7.


CPA has another very cool collaboration coming up on April 9–pianist Timo Andres and the uncategorizable Gabriel Kahane. I think this will be really interesting, along the lines of the Simone Dinnerstein/Tift Merritt collaboration (fostered by Duke Performances several years ago). On the 15th and 16th, a do-not-miss show: Lil Buck, a Jookin’ Jam, in which the Memphis wonder will dance along with an INCREDIBLE band who know all about collaboration from the Silk Road Ensemble work (Johnny Gandelsman, violin; Christina Pato, gaita; Wu Tong, sheng; and the fabulous Sandeep Das, tabla!). And get this–the same gang will play on the 17th with the sublime Abigail Washburn, banjo.

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