Schumann, Mendelssohn and Brahms are three of my favorite composers. But hearing all of them in the same program was like having three courses of the same dish. They lived at the same time. They were friends. And, as talented and diverse as they were great composers, programming them into one program can be lackluster and bland.
That’s what happened when La Musica programmed Schumann’s “Marchenerzaelungen” for clarinet, viola and piano, Mendelssohn’s String Quintet in A, and Brahms’ Quintet for clarinet and strings in b minor.
It’s not that the performances were bad. In fact, for the most part, the players were quite brilliant. Clarinetist David Shifrin was at his best in both the Schumann and the Brahms pieces, as he showed his lovely legato and super-human phrasing. After a scratchy, diminutive start in the Schumann performance, violist Hsin-Yun Huang caught fire and showed us her musical muscle in the Mendelssohn. Derek Han, the pianist in the Schumann, was a little overpowering and didn’t have another chance to make up for some twangy sounds.
The Mendelssohn piece was probably the highlight of the evening. With violinists Candida Thompson and Massimo Quarta, violists Bruno Giuranna and Huang and cellist Xenia Jankovic, we heard a brilliance of tone, beautiful interpretation and sensitivity that made us sit up and take notice. Of course, this piece — written when the composer was still in his teens, before he’d composed his famous “Octet” and his incidental music to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” — has extremely recognizable passages, such as the scherzo that sounds like a combination of both of his future works.
The Brahms quintet that followed intermission had the finest balance of the evening, with beautiful sounds coming from Shifrin, violinists Ellen dePasquale and Thompson, violist Giuranna and cellist Desmond Hoebig. Their blend was beautiful, and the “Immer Leise,” like the opening, was mesmerizing.
And that brings us back to the programmatic problems that plagued this concert. It was too much of a good thing. Color, definition and charismatic character are what make a great program. Three romantics are a crowd.
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