Joyce Yang Joins Alexander Quartet for Soul-Searching Schnittke

Steven Winn on November 12, 2015
Pianist Joyce Yang and the Alexander String Quartet.
Pianist Joyce Yang and the Alexander String Quartet.

Five was the magic number on Tuesday, Nov. 10, when pianist Joyce Yang joined forces with the Alexander String Quartet for an evening of string quintets at the Herbst Theatre.  Two of the pieces on the San Francisco Performances bill were extroverted repertory staples – Schumann’s Quintet for Piano and Strings in E-flat Major, Op. 44 and the brawny Brahms Piano Quintet in F Minor, Op. 34.

Never mind the 19th-century pyrotechnics. It was the lesser-known, five-movement Piano Quintet by the Russian composer Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998) that stole the show.

Written in the wake of his mother’s death in 1972, and more than four years in the making, this soul-searching piece borders its weeping lamentations and wrenching outbursts with heartbreaking stretches of jauntiness and childlike open-heartedness. The second movement is a sepia-toned waltz. The final passacaglia offers a freshet of sweet melody overhung by shadowy recollections.

Yang and the Alexander were ideally attuned to the cause. Her flair for blending decisiveness and delicacy at the keyboard, in evidence throughout the program, formed the tent pole of the Schnittke. The quartet suspended skein after skein of diaphanous harmonies and searing bursts of color from it. The result was a fully integrated marriage of darkness and light, tension, and calm, despair and consolation. The sustained emotional excursions and tiny details had an organic sense of inevitability.

The Alexander players’ demure, slightly reedy string sound, which didn’t serve the Schumann and Brahms works to full advantage, came to finely drawn flower here. The sustained emotional excursions and tiny details had an organic sense of inevitability. The first movement opened with sober, detached phrases that grew more brooding as the music moved toward a near-clinical examination of loss. An introverted theme, first announced by the piano, was echoed in pained, almost strangled whispers by the strings. A single, brittle high note, sounded by Yang in a long, haunting fadeaway, brought this harrowing movement to a close.

Violinists Zakarias Grafilo and Frederick Lifsitz, violist Paul Yarbrough, and cellist Sandy Wilson gave the waltz the blurry tint of a ballroom shrouded in shadow. The following Andante was full of whirring trills and string chords melting and collapsing over the piano’s meanderings.  Yang’s foot on the piano pedal delivered the movement’s closing, unaccompanied thumps of mortality. The Lento was a slow, anguished implosion.

And then, like some unforeseen deliverance, came the untroubled, open intervals of the passacaglia’s theme. Repeated over and over by the piano, in Yang’s wondrous expression, it seemed at once new and deeply familiar. Snatches and scraps of the prior movements floated by in the strings and vaporized. Consonance prevailed over dissonance in the end. It was both a moving and fragile bargain made with grief. All had been lost and yet somehow redeemed.

Positioned in the middle of the program, after the Schumann and just before intermission, the Schnittke Quintet formed the evening’s vital heart. The audience needed a break to let the experience settle in.

There was, to be sure, much more to be savored and enjoyed, if tempered by inconsistencies. Yang’s performances were especially effective. It was she who pumped up the restrained lyricism of the Schumann first movement. The second movement never quite found its dirge-like drama, but took on a tragic cast near the end. Yang gave the Scherzo an exciting, aggressive edge the string players never fully caught. The final movement rose from its early, deliberate declarations to a brash and stirring finish,

The Brahms, over all, came off in rather ordinary fashion. But even a routine reading of this magnificent work sweeps the listener along. Yang once again led the way, with fluid passages of grandeur, percussive bite, and exuberant wit as needed. Cellist Wilson partnered with her in dynamic and tender exchanges in both the first and third movements. He and violist Yarbrough seemed more engaged than the violins. The full contours of the piece were only fitfully realized.

It was up to Yang, in the propulsive final movement, to unleash both the elegance and drive of Brahms’ climax. The Alexander came along gamely and emphatically, in the end, for the ride. So there were fireworks after all. But as the final applause of the night faded away, it was the Schnittke that left the vapor trails.