I was in Chicago a week ago to discuss the subject of writing musical biography with some of Prof. Philip Gossett's excellent graduate students at the University of Chicago - a thoroughly enjoyable experience, at least for me. While I was there, I managed to catch a CSO concert with the orchestra's music director designate, Riccardo Muti. Thanks to some peculiar twists of fate, or scheduling, at any rate, this was the first time I'd ever heard the orchestra on its home turf rather than at Carnegie Hall or elsewhere on tour.
The program consisted of Mozart's "Haffner" Symphony and the Bruckner Second. In the past, Muti's Mozart often seemed forced to me - carefully conceived but with tempi, both fast and slow, that didn't seem to flow naturally. This was not the case here: the approach was fresh, playful, and thoroughly delightful. And for the second time in my listening life, I did not either fall asleep or wish I had fallen asleep during a Bruckner symphony. The first was a New York Philharmonic performance of the Sixth a couple of years ago, also conducted by Muti. I have a feeling that his success with this composer has to do with the fact that instead of trying, as many of his colleagues do, to rationalize the unrationalizable by shoehorning all those weird, contrasting episodes into a logical whole, he focuses on each episode and lets it flower. Maybe he reached the conclusion that thematic dithering is central to Bruckner's compositional process - at least in the symphonies; much less so in the religious music - and that the works' coherence is to be found precisely in their apparently incoherent qualities. Now that I'm well into my seventh decade, I think it's safe for me to say that I'll never be a Brucknerian, but I can finally see that a good Bruckner performance every once in a while can be a pleasant experience. The CSO sounded splendid, and the city's pre-honeymoon with Muti, who takes over as music director next fall, seems to be in full swing.
Call me crazy, but on Saturday evening I thought again (if only for a moment) of Bruckner's bizarrely episodic Second Symphony while listening to the excellent Pacifica Quartet play Janáček's even more episodic "Intimate Letters" Quartet at the Metropolitan Museum's Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium. I sometimes have the feeling that Bruckner is episodic because he couldn't figure out what else to do, whereas Janáček is episodic, especially in this work, because that's what his churning stomach was dictating to him. This quartet is full of Eros and Thanatos - hardly a unique combination (these are the magnetic poles between which most art bounces back and forth, though there certainly isn't a hell of a lot of Eros in Bruckner) - but in this case the emotions created by those two demanding gods are mashed together with Slavic exuberance and good old early-20th-century, Central European angst. The Pacifica threw themselves into the maelstrom and captured the piece's wild mood shifts wonderfully well.
I was much less impressed by their take on Mozart's "Dissonant" Quartet (C Major, K. 465): I felt that the first movement's introductory Adagio was exaggerated, not so much by the ultra-slow tempo as by inflated dyanmics and phrasing that went with it, and the Allegro itself seemed unsteady, as if the musicians had inadvertently taken a marginally faster tempo than usual. The Andante cantabile was marred by numerous little affectations that so many musicians today opt for in Mozart; I generally find that "bringing out" details is a much less successful procedure than letting them stand out by making sure that everything around them is absolutely clear but subordinate. The third movement and finale were much less fussy. Maybe some of the problems in the first two were exacerbated by the auditorium's slightly dry acoustics, which have a negative effect on Mozart's super-exposed musical textures.
The Pacifica Four's Brahms, however, was every bit as good as their Janáček. The Quartet in A minor, Op. 51, No. 2, seems to me the most difficult to bring off among the composer's three surviving works in this genre. With the exception ot its relatively forthright finale, the piece has an underlying terrain that shifts constantly with respect to rhythm, articulation, harmonic movement, and emotional content. The musicians captured all of this excellently; even the gently anguished piano dolce chords in bars 20 and 22 - a stumbling block for so many ensembles - came off with just the right degree of internal tension. Another stumbling block is the choice of a basic tempo for the second movement: if it's a shade too fast, the sense of repose is destroyed, but if it's a shade too slow, the opening theme sounds banal. The Pacifica players got it right - and they also understood that the violence in the movement's agitated middle section must sound semi-repressed; there's a reason, after all, why Brahms's dynamic markings never rise above a single forte. Even the cello's dark upbeat to the third movement - usually dragged out to make it more "meaningful" - was all the more portentous for its gentleness. And the first violin's headlong, virtuosic dash in the finale's coda capped a wholly satisfying performance.
I don't think that the profoundly intimate cavatina from another A minor quartet - Beethoven's Op. 132 - makes an appropriate encore piece, but I'm glad that I stayed to hear it because it was so well played. I look forward to hearing this fine group in other Beethoven quartets as well as other repertoire.