Skip to content Skip to navigation

Cassatt String Quartet Plus at Music Mountain

Music Review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Mon Aug 26th, 2019

From left: Muneko Otani, Jennifer Leshnower, Paul Katz, Elizabeth Anderson, Ah Ling Neu

The Cassatt String Quartet enjoys a robust following at Music Mountain due to their previous outstanding performances. With mild Sunday weather, Gordon Hall was sold out. Cassatt plays with great unity and provides interesting programs.

They opened with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Piano Quartet in E-flat major, K. 493 (1796). The publisher Hoffmeister requested to publish three piano quartets by Mozart. Mozart gave Hoffmeister his second piano quartet, thinking it the best of the two he had written; but after sales lagged, Hoffmeister decided that the work was too difficult and not marketable for the average salon player, which was the commercial audience. Hoffmeister canceled the contract. Mozart then offered his first piano quartet (K. 478, 1795) to the publisher Artaria, who published it. These two works, whether in performance or publication, were not a success in Vienna. Mozart never wrote a third piano quartet; he gave up attempting to play chamber music for the ultra-conservative Viennese chamber music audience that preferred hearing Kozeluch and Pleyel.

And that was a tragedy, as guest pianist Pei-Shan Lee so eloquently demonstrated with leaping, delightful lyricism in the upper register with admirable tension, energy, and memorable refinement amid that contagious joy that Mozart could magically conjure. The dynamic balance between piano and strings in these three movements was like excellent caviar and wine. No wonder there was a full audience to hear this piece.

Ludwig van Beethoven’s String Quartet in B-flat major, Op. 18 #6 (1800) was next. These quartets display the influence of that great master of the string quartet, Joseph Haydn, yet they attempt to compete with and overgo Haydn. First violinist Muneko Otani was forcefully arresting in the opening Allegro with vibrant echoes by cellist Elizabeth Anderson. Second violinist Jennifer Leshnower excelled in the following Adagio while violist Ah Ling Neu was arresting in the succeeding Scherzo. What is most remarkable about this work is the mystic forty-four measure entitled “La Malinconia” where the cello predominates as central anchor to the strings as the strings explore degrees of contemplation before the optimistic Allegretto reversal of satisfied optimism. The long meditative passage that flits from light to dark demands sensitive dynamics and here the Cassatt Quartet delivered with nuance. This moody contemplation is traditionally thought to be a contemplation on Beethoven’s accelerating loss of hearing. To many this melancholy excursion remains a Romantic vista rooted in Classicism that prefigures a later Romantic freedom of emotionally heartfelt expression. Yes, we were on a mountain hearing a work that is itself a great mountain.

It is always interesting to hear a new experiment at the hands of superb musicians. Joined by eminent cellist Paul Katz, five string layers addressed Cello Quintet in F minor (1862) by Johannes Brahms, a work that any reader of this review has never heard. This was the first performance of this work at Music Mountain. This was an approximate reconstructed arranged version by Anssi Karttunen of the “original” that Brahms had burnt. Brahms had submitted the original score to Clara Schumann for her opinion. She replied that it would work better as a piano quintet and Brahms accepted her critique—it became Piano Quintet in F minor (1862).

With two master cellists, Paul Katz and Elizabeth Anderson, this became an electric bravura performance. Piano notes were distributed to the strings, principally to cellos. The fantastic furioso Allegro opening gave way to folksy lyric meditation. The intensely lyric Andante that follows freights a delicious memory of youthful perception of beauty. The robust Scherzo provides rhythmic propulsion recalling young adulthood. The Finale becomes impressively orchestral, and yet, and yet, I could not but help agreeing with Clara Schumann about the improved role of the piano. This virtuoso performance overwhelmed the unripe destroyed score. It was a great pleasure to hear this unusual work and it was a significant reason to attend this concert for this was an exciting treat that will not become a staple of the Romantic repertoire.

Next weekend Music Mountain offers a special two-date Saturday (5 pm), Sunday (3 pm) program with The Shanghai Quartet. On Sunday pianist Todd Crow will accompany The Shanghai Quartet.