Society of Lincoln Center Chamber Music Romantic Quartets Review - Breaking the Mold

L to R: David Hope, Paul Neubauer, Wu Han, and David Finckel photo credit: Tristan cook

Monday evening’s presentation of three Romantic piano quartets from The Chamber Society of Lincoln Center at Chicago’s Harris Theater was, in a sense, a rehearsal for the performance Tuesday night at their home base in New York. That performance will be recorded live and released by Deutsche Grammophon next month. Consisting of the Chamber Society’s co-directors, Wu Han (piano) and David Finckel (cello), as well as British-born violinist Daniel Hope (violin) and violist Paul Neubauer, this quartet’s intensity threatened at times to explode our notions of Romantic chamber music.

Chamber music is not a genre associated with the man who wrote the “Symphony of a Thousand,” but the Lincoln Center quartet opened with a single movement of a piano quartet composed by Gustav Mahler. This piece is a rarity, to say the least, of fascination because it was written by Mahler as a 15 year-old student. It comes off almost as a parody of Romanticism, though crucially one can hear indications of Mahler’s later compositions coming off in the harmonies. The playing of the quartet revealed that the evening was going to be dominated by the play of Daniel Hope, an awesomely talented violinist whose flashy bravura seemed to dominate his more than competent cohorts.

Daniel Hope photo credit: Harald Hoffmann

Even in the second piece of the evening, a full quartet from Robert Schumann in E-flat major, the quartet’s intense, aggressive approach remained consistent, never retreating to the safer ground of familiar interpretation, evidently finding such an approach too stodgy. Hope dominated the quartet; his pianos in the second movement were as intensely registered as the louder passages.

David Finckel photo credit: Christian Steiner

Hope was far from the only distinctive contributor; David Finckel, clearly a first-class cellist but satisfied with a supporting role, provided an elegant contrast with his sincere emotionalism. Wu Han’s charismatic leadership and her collaborative spirit are evident, and her playing tended to oscillate between fiery highs and relaxed departures from the intensity, and her playing was characterized by a notable conscientiousness. The fact that the quartet is making the recording no doubt affected their approach; with a recording comes the need to make a novel statement on standard repertoire, and that seemed to be the driving factor here.

Wu Han photo credit: Christian Steiner

For all the stylishness and embellishment that characterized the evening’s first two pieces, the G minor quartet by Brahms saw a more balanced approach from the players. Wu Han took more of a starring role here, and the quartet’s opening Allegro movements revealed a more sensible approach. The slightly less affected opening movements gave way to a third movement scherzo, whose almost militaristic character brought the players back to their dynamic, aggressive ways. The quartet closed with a rondo “Gypsy style” that built to a hairbreadth climax worthy of an action movie, the musicians stopping on a dime as if it was nothing.

Paul Neubauer photo credit: Bernard Mindich

The quartet was not above showmanship for its encore. Hope told the audience that Wu Han and Finckel discovered the descendant of the Gypsy whose music inspired the final movement of the Brahms quartet at a café in Budapest, and emerging from the wings was the quartet’s forgotten man, violist Paul Neubauer, who played a typically Gypsy style theme while making his way through the aisles, occasionally stopping to favor a female audience member in the style of a café violinist. It may have been a bit corny, but the audience was enthralled with this fun, clever little touch, craning their necks in every direction to see where Neubauer was headed next.

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