Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center, New York

Tuesday, March 3rd, 2015
“Romantic Piano Quartets”
Wu Han, piano
Daniel Hope, violin
Paul Neubauer, viola
David Finckel, cello


Mahler – Quartet in A minor
Schumann – Quartet in E-flat major op.47
Brahms – Quartet in G minor op.25


Leonard Bernstein, arguably one of the greatest musicians of our time, in 1954 published a book he chose to call “The Joy of Music”- not a very original phrase, come to think of it, but one which simply says it all.

In its masterfully written introduction, “The Happy Medium”, Bernstein “explains” why it is impossible to explain, and I use his own words, “the unique phenomenon of human reaction to organized sound”.  Robert Jourdain and Anthony Storr have tried, the first in his “Music, the Brain and Ecstasy” and the latter in “Music and the Mind” to deliver such an explanation, but, although both books are splendid and shed  much new light on the subject, they do not quite succeed and in fact don’t even purport to solve the mystery. No amount of scientific explanation on how we hear and how the brain actually reacts to music can account for the extraordinarily wide range of emotions music elicits.

This introductory digression is an attempt to justify the title of this article and most of its content. This concert, aptly entitled “Romantic Piano Quartets” simply filled us (I dare to speak for the whole audience) with sheer, unmitigated, absolute joy. As an amateur chamber musician, I found myself silently (fortunately) and fervently joining in the conversation taking place on stage, and empathizing with the four magnificent  musicians who were guiding us into jubilation.

Just before the concert began, Wu Han set the mood by coming onstage to graciously and humorously announce that the concert was being recorded live by Deutsche Grammophon and asking the audience to be as still and quiet as possible during the performance but to feel free to applaud vigorously and shout bravo at the end, so as to be part of the recording.

First on the program, although last chronologically,  was Mahler’s youthful – he wrote it at the age of sixteen – quartet which is actually the first movement of a full quartet that never was.  A sweet and rather melancholy quartettsatz, it is, to my ears, more Schubertian than Schumannian or Brahmsian, and I venture to say not easy to attribute to Mahler, unless you know he wrote it. The gorgeous theme and its development pass from instrument to instrument, and we had an immediate idea of what this concert was all about. Romantic music, romantic piano quartets, yes, but specifically the art of musical dialogue. All chamber music is conversation, and in the case of Romantic sonatas, trios, quartets, etc., it tends to be a particularly warm, passionate and often animated one.  It was obvious from this beginning that Wu Han, Daniel Hope, Paul Neubauer and David Finckel were determined not only to speak to each other, but also to draw the listener into this interchange, in which they were supremely effective.

The dialogue continued brilliantly in the second work on the program, Schumann’s E-flat major quartet. The four instruments were in turn outspoken or subdued, at times assertive, or self-effacing, in a supreme show of elegant cohesion. The third movement, Andante cantabile, is probably the quintessence of Romanticism, a beautiful lyric outpouring of all four instruments, with accents at times reminiscent of a Viennese ballroom.

And then came Brahms.  His first and most often heard piano quartet, in the lovely (and forgiving for strings)  key of G minor, is, I believe, more elaborate than the Schumann and certainly than the Mahler, more mature, in the vein of Beethoven. The musicians did it full justice and the last movement, the Rondo alla Zingarese, was a true display of fireworks intermingled with pure passion.

I have heard Daniel Hope often, since his Beaux-Arts times, and I am definitely an enthusiast of his accomplished, but also fresh and inspired, playing.  David Finckel is best known to me as the ex-cellist of that supreme quartet, the Emerson. He brought all his expert musicianship and chamber experience to this concert, but I often found he lacked enthusiasm, acting more as a mainstay of the group, which is often the role cellists must play, and, despite a beautiful  tone and refined dynamics, remaining in the shadow of Hope’s and Neubauer’s intense lyricism and almost frolicky excitement. Wu Han’s playing was also extremely accomplished, interesting and as lively, when called for, as her truly buoyant personality. Like her husband’s, nevertheless, I found her playing sometimes lacked assertiveness. Neubauer was simply brilliant, a violist of rare presence and intelligence (no joke intended!).  Upon reflection, I would dare say that this difference between Hope and Neubauer, on the one hand, and Wu Han and Finckel, on the other, may be due to the fact that the first two are basically soloists (although Neubauer began his career as principal violist of the NY Phil), whereas Wu Han and Finckel are paradigmatic chamber players.

The ovation, at the end of the Brahms, was appropriately thundering and nobody wanted to see the concert come to and end.  When the applause refused to die down and only piano, violin and cello took their seats, it seemed that the encore would be a piano trio. The violist could be too tired or have a plane to catch.

Hope came to the front of the stage to give an obviously  tongue-in-cheek explanation. He said nothing about Neubauer’s absence, but did reveal that they had finally discovered who had composed the rhapsodic Hungarian themes which Brahms used in the last movement of  the piano quartet we had just heard. Apparently, Neubauer had met his great grandson in a café in Budapest and had persuaded this  Paul Lovsky (or something like that) to come to New York. As Hope took his seat again, unmistakably Gypsy accents made themselves heard from the boxes. It took me a while to spot Neubauer coming down to the orchestra section, while playing livelier and livelier czardas, accompanied by the trio on the stage. He swung from row to row, stopping to play, in true Gypsy fashion, directly into the ear of several lucky members of the audience. Metamorphosed into a particularly skilled Gypsy fiddler, he led his colleagues and the audience into a trance.  Thanks to four splendid musicians who obviously refuse to take themselves too seriously, the joy of music became exhilaration.