Last night in Herbst Theatre, pianist Joyce Yang made her San Francisco Performances (SFP) debut in a recital with the members of the SFP Ensemble-in-Residence, the Alexander String Quartet (ASQ), violinists Zakarias Grafilo and Frederick Lifsitz, violist Paul Yarbrough, and cellist Sandy Wilson. This was far more than a “guest appearance,” appearing in one selection on a program of string quartets. Instead, the entire program was structured around quintets for piano and strings.
The program began with Robert Schumann’s Opus 44 quintet in E-flat major. While the combination of piano and string quartet can be traced back at least to Luigi Boccherini, the genre really did not come into its own until Opus 44 was composed in 1842, even though there was a rich repertoire of other combinations of piano and strings. On last night’s program beginning with Opus 44 was complemented by concluding with Johannes Brahms’ Opus 34 quintet in F minor, composed in 1864. The middle portion of the program wisely did not try to fill the “chronological gap” between these two compositions. Rather, it leapt boldly into the twentieth century with Alfred Schnittke’s quintet, composed between 1972 and 1976.
As suggested above, string quartets often invite a pianist to appear as a “guest” in order to include a piano quintet on the program. Often this results in something like a “concerto soloist” visit, giving the impression that a piano quintet is just a “concerto for piano and very small orchestra.” While it is probably true that Brahms tended to show a certain preference for the piano in his chamber music (as did Ludwig van Beethoven), last night’s performances were particularly memorable through the joint efforts of Yang and ASQ to establish a level playing field. In each of these three compositions, every instrument brings its own characteristic voice to the ensemble (including the distinctions between first and second violins). Thus the metaphor of conversation is particularly apposite, and performance is as much a matter of bringing expression to the contributing personalities as it is one of rising to technical challenges.
Mind you, those technical challenges are equally significant in establishing the overall listening experiences. Over the course of Schumann’s four movements, no end of challenges are imposed along a wide diversity of dimensions of execution; yet this all builds up to the concluding fourth-movement coda, a double fugue whose subjects come from the first and fourth movements, respectively. Schumann had a long-standing interest in structures that would arch over the entire course of multiple movements; and that interest came to particularly successful fruition in Opus 44.
The ability to listen to and apprehend the richness of such detail, both technical and expressive, requires that the ensemble be as well-integrated as the sorts of structures Schumann envisaged. Thus, one of the most impressive features of last night was the chemistry through which Yang became “one of the group.” This was not just a matter of attentive listening and a keen command of the exchange of cues. It was the idea of a mix of diverse personalities that could still play as one.
This was particularly evident in the Schnittke selection, in which it seemed as if he deliberately wished to situate piano and strings on different planes. If Schumann’s vision had been one of an integrated unity in an intimate setting, Schnittke seemed to approach composition as an unrepentant segregationist. Thus, what mattered most last night was how Yang could work with ASQ to establish a rhetoric of separation, complete with the frustrations encountered through trying to bridge the gap. The result was a bold and frequently chilling interpretation that was not afraid to tackle head-on Schnittke’s preoccupation with the darker sides of the human personality.
One reason why last night’s performance was so compelling may be that Yang and ASQ are far from strangers to each other. According to my records, they performed the Brahms Opus 34 in the fall of 2013 at both San Francisco State University and the Music at Kohl Mansion chamber music series. Last night thus could be taken as the continuation of an ongoing relationship, which gives reason to hope that the relationship will continue and seek out more of the piano-and-strings chamber music repertoire.