A Selective Guide to the Arts in Los Angeles

When desert island music is mentioned to us mere mortals, we think of music we’d like to hear. But not so for the musicians of the LA Phil who performed a concert of Brahms chamber music on Feb. 19. According to LA Phil violinist Mitch Newman, the three works on the program — the Piano Trio in B major, Op. 8; the String Quintet No. 2 in G major, Op. 111; and the Piano Quintet in F minor, Op. 34 — would be the music they’d most likely want to play on a desert island.

Well, Walt Disney Concert Hall is no desert island, but the musicians got their wish to play these masterpieces on Tuesday night to a large crowd of mortals who came to hear Brahms in all of his chamber music splendor and glory.

The playing by the members of the LA Phil all night was superb. So, my few quibbles (mentioned below) are only minor and do not in any way detract from what was a truly great night of music making.

The concert began with Brahms’ Piano Trio performed by violinist Guido Lamell, cellist David Garrett and pianist So-Mang Jeagal. The opus number (8) suggests a youthful composition, but looks can be deceiving. Although Brahms composed the piece when he was just 20 years old, he put it aside and revisited it more than 30 years later. This explains why there are strains of a mature composer at the height of his compositional powers intertwined amongst the more youthful parts he kept. The second (Scherzo: Allegro Molto) and third (Adagio) movements are almost unchanged from the original composition. If one compares these movements, for example, to another youthful composition — the Four Ballades, Op. 10, one can hear some similarities. The overall effect, however, is that Brahms took the germs of a masterpiece and brought it to fruition.

Right out of the gate, the performers were at a disadvantage because the same piece was performed almost one year ago by the renowned super trio of Leonidas Kovakas, Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax (see http://culturespotla.com/2018/03/review-emanuel-ax-leonidas-kavakos-and-yo-yo-ma-perform-brahms-at-disney-hall/). While not as exhilarating as the Kovakas, Ma and Ax performance, Lamell, Garrett and Jeagal certainly held their own. Jeagal’s playing was warm and crisp when it needed to be, but, probably because of the acoustics in the hall, the piano overshadowed the strings. Nonetheless, even though Lamell and Garrett could have played with a bit more verve to at least match the volume of the piano, their playing was heartfelt.

The first half concluded with the String Quintet in G major, a piece full of beautiful melodies lushly scored for five solo string instruments (two violins, played by Mitch Newman and Rebecca Reale; two violas, played by Ingrid Hutman and Leticia Oaks Strong; and cello, played by Barry Gold). As with his other chamber music compositions for multiple instruments, the writing in the G-major quintet sounds almost orchestral. The piece begins with a cello solo that was played with conviction by Gold against a backdrop of shimmering tremolos in the violins and violas. The musicians played as lushly as the score with waves of melodic lines — and with an intimacy difficult to attain with five musicians.

The second half consisted of one work: the Piano Quintet in F minor, a piece that was popularized by a commercial several years back in which the frenetic energy of the final movement was such that the performers’ instruments were shredded. Like others of Brahms’ works, the F-minor piano quintet had its beginnings in other forms (a string quintet and a sonata for two pianos), but after feedback for the violinist Joseph Joachim and Clara Schumann, Brahms transformed it into the piano quintet, which to this day has become one of the monuments of chamber music writing. It is a demanding work both for the performer and listener, which might explain why so many people left after intermission. Too bad for them because the musicians (Joanne Pearce Martin, piano; Bing Wang and Johnny Lee (violins); Teng Lee, viola; and Jason Lippman, cello) gave a stellar performance that rocked the hall. Even at the late hour, the musicians poured their heart and soul into the quintet, leaving the audience as spent as the musicians, but deeply satisfied.

It’s amazing to consider that the three works on the program — masterpieces each in their own right — comprise only a small sample of the masterpieces Brahms wrote for chamber music ensembles. In that light, comparisons to Bach do not seem too far-fetched.

One observation that I found puzzling was that the audience applauded after every movement of all three pieces. It was distracting, especially after the ethereal and sublime adagios of the piano trio and string quintet, but not so much as to detract from a totally beautiful and satisfying evening of Brahms.

—Henry Schlinger, Culture Spot LA

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