John Frayne: Jupiter's ode to Schumann builds from good to great

John Frayne: Jupiter's ode to Schumann builds from good to great

The Jupiter String Quartet gave an exciting concert of chamber music on Nov. 30 in the Foellinger Great Hall. The quartet members, Nelson Lee and Meg Freivogel, violins, Liz Freivogel, viola, and Daniel McDonough, cello, were joined by pianist Michael Brown, who is also currently composer in residence with the New Haven Symphony in Connecticut. The three works on the program were all by the composer Robert Schumann (1810-1856), and that concentration on one composer seemed to presage much of a muchness. But that was not the case. All three works were from the same year — 1842, the year after Schumann's marriage to the famous pianist Clara Wieck — and in the organization of this concert, I would rate quality of the works played as good, then better, and then best, ending up with bravos from the standing audience.

Schumann described the two contrasting sides to his nature by naming them. The placid side of his personality he called Eusebius; the impulsive, manic side Florestan. And the work performed on this night certainly had many abrupt mood shifts. But so does the music of Beethoven and Brahms, who was mentored by Schumann. But composers other than Schumann did not memorialize their mood swings with names.

The opening work was Schumann's String Quartet in A Minor, Op. 41, No. 1, the first of three works in that opus number. This work is full of lovely melodies, and they were played with tender feeling by the Jupiter members, who also adroitly managed the dramatic shifts to Schumann's Florestan moods. But Schumann, like Brahms, was a pianist by trade, and there was to my ears a perceptible rise in the level of inspiration from this String Quartet to the next two works on the program, which involved a piano.

Brown joined Lee, Liz Freivogel and McDonough for the Piano Quartet in E-flat, op. 47. This work was written for a cellist named Count Matvei, and it was no accident that the beautiful song-like melodies were given to that instrument. Jupiter cellist McDonough made sure that they were played "cantabile" ("singing") as the second movement is described. Pianist Brown's polished and assured playing added greatly to the strong effect of this famous work.

But the Jupiters and Brown saved the best wine for the end. Schumann's Piano Quintet, also in E-Flat, Op. 44, has masterpiece written all over it. Each movement has its own distinctive character. The first comes out swinging with magisterial confidence, and the second is a hesitating, wistful slow "funeral" march. Then came the explosive Scherzo, in which the Jupiter members played like furies, matched in speed and agility by fleet-fingered pianist Brown. This Scherzo has such impact that one feared that Schumann has shot his bolt. How could he top the impact of the Scherzo with something even more exciting, surely not by speed? As it turns out, Schumann chose to end with a mood of confident triumph, building slowly to a resounding climax, the expert playing of which set off an upsurge of happy applause.

The electrifying playing of the reminded me of Schumann's humorous tempo indications in his Piano Sonata No. 2. At the beginning of the first movement, the pianist is told to play "as fast as possible," then, at the end, the composer urges the player on with the command "faster!" and, for the last notes, "even faster!"

On the concert as a whole, Eusebius seemed to be having a good evening, but Florestan had an even better one!

Pianist Brown was playing from a screen rather than a score, which beings up the question, how did he turn the page? Playing at that velocity, he surely could not have pressed a button with his hands. One possibility is foot pedals, which are apparently widely used when reading the score from an electronic device. Just make sure the batteries are charged!

John Frayne hosts "Classics of the Phonograph" on Saturdays at WILL-FM and, in retirement, teaches at the UI. Reach him at frayne@illinois.edu.

Topics (1):Music