Thursday , May 23 2024
Aspect Chamber Music Series – Alla Zingarese

Concert Review: ‘Alla Zingarese’ – Brahms, Liszt, and the Imprint of Romani Music

Franz Liszt and Johannes Brahms has vastly different creative temperaments and wrote vastly different music. But the music the Romani people of Hungary fascinated both composers. The influence of what our SEO plugin no longer approves of us calling “Gypsy music” on these giants of classical music’s Romantic era formed the theme of “Alla Zingarese,” the April 11 Aspect Chamber Music Series concert in New York City.

The Romani Influence

Renowned Swedish pianist Per Tengstrand began the program with a brief talk before starting the concert with Liszt’s famous Piano Sonata in B minor – the one Brahms fell asleep to, as Mr. Tengstrand discussed with us recently. Three polished young string players then joined him for Brahms’ Piano Quartet No. 1 in G minor.

The Blue Gallery, a new venue for the Aspect series, had proved a good acoustical space for Baroque English love songs from harp-viol duo A Golden Wire and soprano Nola Richardson back in February. Its boxy shape and low ceiling weren’t as friendly to the powerful resonance of a grand piano under Mr. Tengstrand’s strong arms and the puissant power in the Liszt. Nonetheless the concert was a crowd-pleasing clinic in expressivity and musicianly joy.

It was educational too, thanks to the pianist’s mini-lectures on the two works. I hadn’t known, for example, that it was Liszt who established the customary sideways positioning of the grand piano in concert because he wanted to be able to see his adoring female fans and for them to admire his ravishing profile.

Franz Liszt is one of the most interesting and larger-than-life characters in all of Western music. But should say up front that I’m not a huge fan of the B minor Sonata. I appreciate its passionate clamor and wanderings, and even the semi-hidden structure supporting its long, single movement. But it grabs me only intermittently. In this Liszt-Brahms matchup, I was bound to be Team Brahms.

The acoustics made the piano’s lowest and highest registers sound a bit metallic in the Liszt, the stormiest passages somewhat muddy despite Mr. Tengstrand’s admirably judicious use of the sustain pedal. Still, though I find the piece overblown overall, the lyrical passages glowed, the rubatos were tasteful and expressive, and the staccato section ran with stinging clarity. Liszt’s abstract adventurism was on proud display in this grand performance.

The Brahms Piano Quartet No. 1

Violinist Hana Mundiya, violist Katie Liu, and cellist Robin Park joined the pianist for the Brahms Piano Quartet No. 1. In this context, with a necessarily more tempered attack, Mr. Tengstrand made the piano sing beautifully, and the four musicians achieved a very nice balance in a magnificent interpretation full of dynamic acuity.

They reached a good approximation of orchestral fulness in the opening Allegro. I had to catch my breath after its wonderful, feverish finish. They expressed the composer’s symphonic aspirations even more strongly in the third movement (Andante con moto), where each instrument emerged as a piece of a giant, gorgeous puzzle. In between, the second movement progressed with graceful lightness; here I was especially impressed by the string players’ soaring sensitivity.

The final movement (Rondo alla Zingarese) sounded brilliantly expressive, the pizzicatos and the piano fast and furious, the “crying sixths” passages most feelingly played.

Indeed the work as a whole sang with Brahmsian passion – and with “Gypsy” fire. It was very gratifying to see the meeting of the minds between two generations of musicians – so many chamber music performances feature either all seasoned veterans, or all up-and-comers. In their performance of this Brahms masterwork, these four fine players were, so to speak, on the same page (or tablet). Just watching the frequent smiles on the face of cellist Park told me all I needed to know about the joy of playing this music in this kind of intimate setting.

The 2023–2024 season of the Aspect Chamber Music Series concludes with two concerts. In London on April 18: a program of French chansons on the theme “L’Invitation au Voyage” with soprano Vera Maria Kremers and pianist Jakub Sládek. In New York on May 1: “Mozart as Harlequin” with pianists Michael Stephen Brown and Adam Golka playing music by Mozart for piano four hands and for two pianos, with an illustrated talk by noted biographer Jan Swafford. Tickets and information are on the Aspect Chamber Music website.

About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is Publisher and Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Music, where he covers classical music (old and new) and other genres, and Culture, where he reviews NYC theater. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting at http://www.orenhope.com/ you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. Jon also writes the blog Park Odyssey at http://parkodyssey.blogspot.com/ where he is on a mission to visit every park in New York City. He has also been a part-time working musician, including as lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado.

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