Bold as Brahms

Members of the Emerson String Quartet with Wu Han. At the Music Academy of the West, Saturday, October 28.

Reviewed by James Hanley Donelan

Han1.jpgChamber music players usually wear sensible shoes — the kind that say, “You might have to do a lot of walking or standing, you never know, better safe than sorry.” Wu Han’s bright red four-inch heels said it all. Nothing was safe about her performance of the Brahms Piano Quartet in G Minor with Philip Setzer, Eugene Drucker, and David Finckel in the second half of the program. Every movement surprised us with impossibly fast runs and startlingly quiet, lyrical moments followed by explosions of huge chords. Brahms raised the roof of Abravanel Hall, bigger and bolder than ever.

The three players from the Emerson Quartet (Lawrence Dutton, their usual violist, was missing; violinist Eugene Drucker played viola) began the concert with the Mozart Divertimento for String Trio in E-flat, a deceptively titled work that runs nearly an hour, although it seemed like only a few minutes. It’s hardly a light piece, with six movements centered on an achingly beautiful “Andante,” including two menuettos of strikingly different character. The trio played the first “Menuetto” with gentle thought and grace, while the second skipped along to bouncing bows. The finale rollicked along, full of witty phrases and clever ideas, until the work’s thundering close.

But Brahms stole the show. Each movement had something daring and outrageous in it — a crescendo that rose like water from a burst dam, a quick run that darted from cello to piano to viola to violin, or a sforzando that made you look at the players to see what was going on. What you saw at that moment was the sheer glee of a conspiracy: all four players looking at each other with impish grins, ready for their next bold move. The finale, appropriately enough, was a rondo based on four themes in the gypsy style. The players took these melodies and ran with them, dancing wildly as they went — that’s what red shoes are for. After two curtain calls, they came back and played the “Andante” from Brahms’s C Minor Piano Quartet and broke our hearts again, but in just the right way.

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