Music review: Brahms, overcooked and undercooked

PITTSFIELD — Brahms composed two piano concertos, but if you hear his Piano Quintet in certain performances, you could be excused for thinking it was a trial run for his first concerto, with the two finished concertos to follow. The quintet can sound that orchestral in sweep.

The Dover String Quartet and pianist Peter Serkin came to South Mountain on Sunday afternoon with their own ideas about the piece. As the finale on a program smothered in midsummer-like heat, the quintet was slowed down, toned down, stretched out in duration and, ultimately, shrunken in dramatic impact.

Shrinking is not necessarily a bad thing in this case. The piece has an intimate quality — a from-the-stubborn-heart quality — that can get submerged when a virtuoso pianist and high-powered quartet go at it as if it really were a concerto in miniature. The Serkin-Dover performance, however, seemed to go too far in the opposite direction, turning it into a series of sometimes disconnected, sometimes directionless episodes.

Any comment on this concert has to be qualified. It took place in a venerable hall without air conditioning or much ventilation. In the heat, pitch suffered. So, obviously, did the musicians producing that pitch, though they doffed jackets even before the first note (and, according to front-section sitters, changed out of sweat-soaked shirts at intermission).

The choice of the veteran Serkin to perform Brahms with the still-young Dover was an interesting one. Serkin has an uncommon view of the Brahms concertos, which he plays not as showpieces on a grand scale but on a smaller, lighter yet still dramatic works, in keeping with the size and sound of instruments of Brahms' time.

The idea makes sense in the Piano Quintet, which Brahms conceived as a string quintet, revised as a sonata for two pianos, and only then turned into its final form. But with the hall's doors open for air, the South Mountain instrument's sound was dulled, and Serkin's attention to detail yielded moments of clarity but also an overall disconnect with the strings.

It would be rewarding to hear this performance — this concert — under more favorable conditions. The Dover, a Berkshire favorite, is a better quartet than it sounded here, and Serkin is a master in his own right.

The earlier part of the program was devoted to Mendelssohn's Four Pieces for String Quartet, Opus 81, and Tchaikovsky's Quartet No. 1.

The Mendelssohn pieces pose one of music's what-if's. The pair is not one of his six canonic string quartets but a patch job beginning with two movements he composed shortly before his death at 38. To them, his publisher posthumously added two stand-alone movements from earlier in his career.

Thus are malformed children born. The opening movements have the romantic warmth of the true quartets but the two add-on movements are completely unrelated. (What if Mendelssohn had lived ... ?) The earlier works suggest that Mendelssohn had been studying Beethoven's fugues in his late quartets — in particular, the "Grosse Fuge" of Opus 133 and the first movement of the C minor quartet, Opus 131.

The Tchaikovsky quartet is the one with the irresistibly melodic andante cantabile, and here the Dover was at its best, showing how simplicity of art can be made into profundity of art. As for the rest of the overheated afternoon, let's just say the players deserve medals for getting through it.


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