At the Vancouver Playhouse on Friday, March 21
There was a moment of musical transcendence on the third, and final, night of the Vancouver Recital Society’s Brahms Festival. It occurred in the second half of the Friday-night concert, when the Jerusalem Quartet (violinists Alexander Pavlovsky and Sergei Bresler, violist Ori Kam, and cellist Kyril Zlotnikov) was joined by Israeli pianist Inon Barnatan to perform Brahms’s Quintet for Piano and Strings in F Minor, Op. 34.
From the opening unison theme of the “Allegro non troppo”, so familiar to chamber-music fans, the players brought a freshness and vitality to a work they could likely have played in their sleep. The first movement, elegantly and thoughtfully paced, brought darkness and light in equal measure with such revelatory phrasing, it was like hearing the piece for the first time. The “Andante, un poco adagio”, with its gentle syncopations, opened with a compelling hesitancy that gave way to a thrumming intensity. Violist Ori Kam’s insistent triplet and duple figures were like a muscle flexing in alarm.
But where the music achieved liftoff was during the “Scherzo (allegro)”, a dizzying, propulsive movement that the group attacked with gusto, and that had the audience transfixed. Where other musicians might get bogged down in its hammering accents and cross rhythms, this performance drove unremittingly forward, never losing steam. Upon the movement’s completion, and in the pause before the next, one member of the usually well-behaved VRS audience couldn’t help but let out a loud “Whoa!”—giving voice to what the rest of us were feeling. The “Finale (poco sostenuto—allegro non troppo—presto)” unfolded with an aching, restrained passion that exploded, like a pressure cooker unlidded, before being tamped down again.
If only the first half of the evening could be described with same enthusiasm. Unfortunately, the String Quartet in B-Flat Major, Op. 67, which opened the concert, was plagued with intonation troubles that first violinist Pavlovsky couldn’t seem to shake, despite repeated retunings between movements. Not that there wasn’t plenty to enjoy here, particularly the "Andante", which began like a gentle mist rolling in, and ended with churchlike reverence. But, in the parlance of American Idol, it remained “pitchy” throughout.
The Sonata for Violin and Piano in D Minor, Op. 108, performed by Pavlovsky and Barnatan, also suffered a few hitches. While Barnatan brought a sweet and delicate touch, Pavlovsky failed to match his tone. A couple of stumbles with his bowing marred the opening "Allegro" movement, and he continued to crunch notes throughout the moody "Adagio". He also had that unfortunate musician's habit of loudly sniffing and inhaling during upbeats—essentially, filling with sound a moment which the composer marked as silent (a personal pet peeve).
Still, it was to rapturous applause that the group ended the night, all previous mishaps forgiven. But despite a whooping standing ovation, the group declined an encore. After three consecutive nights of nothing but Brahms, with all that rich and luxurious music, perhaps they—unlike their audience—had had their fill.