Yesterday afternoon the sanctuary of Congregation Sha’ar Zahav in the Mission provided the venue for the first of the three concerts in this year’s season of the Music in the Mishkan (MITM) series, the seventeenth season of the three-part chamber music concert series conceived by Music Director and violinist Randall Weiss. While chamber music tends to be known best for its intimacy, the program featured two nineteenth-century compositions both known for their grandeur, both in terms of their mastery of extended duration and for imaginative use of resources. In the case of the final work on the program, Franz Schubert’s D. 667 (“Trout”) quintet in A major, that involved the nonstandard blend of sonorities from violin (Weiss), viola (Natalia Vershilova), cello (Victoria Ehrlich), bass (Mark Wallace), and piano (Marilyn Thompson). On the other hand the opening selection Johannes Brahms’ Opus 60 piano quartet in C minor makes so many demands on the pianist that it may as well be called a concerto for piano and very small orchestra.
The Brahms quartet certainly got this year’s season off to an assertive start. In addition to the highly demanding piano part, given a thoroughly compelling account by Thompson, the music exhibits a broad range of dynamic levels, often, as in its opening measures, deployed with abrupt transitions. This is Brahms at his most overtly dramatic, a stance that Brahms reinforced by suggesting a design for the cover of the publication that would evoke Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Werther character, driven to suicide by frustrated love. (Brahms decided that putting a pistol on the cover of the score would be sufficient to deliver the message. However, in a letter to his friend Doctor Theodor Billroth, Brahms made explicit reference to “the last chapter of the man with the blue jacket and yellow vest,” the attire that Goethe associated with Werther.)
For all of its denotations and connotations of dramatic extremes, this quartet was still given a disciplined performance by the MITM players. If the piece amounted to a “concerto in disguise,” Thompson still understood that the three string players had a role in the affair. Over that broad range of dynamic levels, piano and strings always seemed to find the best balances to bring out the impact of each of their characteristic sonorities. Thus the “spirit” of Brahms was well reinforced by the “flesh” behind the execution of the marks he had committed to his score pages.
The same could be said of the Schubert quintet, but it involved an entirely different nature of spirit. The instrumentation was not novel, since Johann Nepomuk Hummel had previously used it for an arrangement of his Opus 74 septet for winds and strings in D minor (probably to allow additional opportunities for the music’s performance). Schubert wrote D. 667 for the amateur cellist Sylvester Paumgartner, who had assembled friends to play the Hummel piece in its quintet version. Paumgartner was also responsible for suggesting that Schubert include a set of variations on his D. 550 song “Die Forelle” (the trout). This became the fourth of a five-movement composition; and Schubert’s playfully chose to conclude his variations with a reference to his song setting.
Here again balance of sonorities was critical to making the performance a compelling one. Schubert appreciated that a bowed bass would be able to sustain critical low tones for a much longer duration than a piano could (particularly a piano from the early nineteenth century). One might almost say that he decided to use the bass as a latter-day continuo instrument, freeing up the cello for more adventurous melodic work (not to mention a rib-tickling “punch line” in the Scherzo movement(). Wallace’s command of his instrument always provided that solid foundation when Schubert required it, but he was equally adept in the few moments when Schubert passed him the thematic material.
Music in the Mishkan programming is distinguished by its commitment to including the works of Jewish composers on its program. Yesterday afternoon that composer was Brian Wilson, whose piano trio “Sentiments” had been previously performed in May of 2013. Wilson is currently chair of both Music and Composition at Sonoma State University, and his music is often distinguished by thematic citations based on Jewish liturgical services. In “Sentiments” his source is the “Aleinu” (it is our duty) prayer, usually sung by the entire congregation. Specifically, he set the motif for “Va’anachnu kor’im” (but we bow), a significant moment, since it is the only time in the entire Jewish liturgy when the congregation bows. While this is the one explicit appropriation, the complete single-movement trio has a sense of liturgical incantation, often structured as call-and-response between the piano and the strings; and there was much to appreciate in this “return visit” of the music offered by the MITM players.
The concert also turned out to be a memorial occasion, due to the recent death of Jerry Rosenstein. A survivor of Auschwitz, Rosenstein had been a long-time enthusiastic patron of MITM. He was as much a good friend to Weiss as he had been a supporter of the promotion of chamber music; and, as the program sheet pointed out, he was also an “all-around mensch.” In his memory Weiss offered an affectionate reading of the Gigue movement that concludes Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 1006 E major partita for solo violin.