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Mahler, Schnittke, Brahms: Piano Quartets / Avery Ensemble

Avery Ensemble
Release Date: 01/29/2008 
Label:  Cd Baby   Catalog #: 5637214049  
Composer:  Gustav MahlerAlfred SchnittkeJohannes Brahms
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Avery Ensemble
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

MAHLER Piano Quartet. SCHNITTKE Piano Quartet. BRAHMS Piano Quartet No. 1 Avery Ens ZEPHYR 001 (61:18)

In the interest of full disclosure, candor compels me to divulge the following fact: the present disc was sent to Fanfare ’s Robert Carl by friends of his who play in this ensemble. Robert passed it on to Editor in Chief Joel Read more Flegler in the hope of having it reviewed, and Joel in turn passed it on to me, since having Robert review it himself could have appeared as a conflict in interest.

The Avery Ensemble, (Annie Trépanier, violin; Steve Larson, viola; Hans Twitchell, cello; and Adriana Jarvis, piano) was founded in 1999, is New England-based, and has been recently invited to be the chamber ensemble in residence at Trinity-on-Main in New Britain, Connecticut. Their Web site states that they have recorded for the Zephyr and CRI labels, but at the present time, this is their only recording I find listed.

If you enjoy playing the “guess who wrote it” game with your friends, Mahler’s only published chamber work, a piano quartet movement in A Minor, is a good test piece to use. Like Richard Strauss, who also wrote two piano quartets at a very young age, Mahler was 16 and a student at the Vienna Conservatory in 1876 when he wrote this gorgeous movement that exudes a fragrance of Saint-Saëns and Fauré steeped in an essence of Schumann and Brahms. Anyone who has never heard it before is guaranteed to be taken with its beauty, but will never in a million years guess Mahler as the composer. There are several recordings of the piece, two of which I happen to have in my collection. The Beethoven Trio Vienna plays it on a Camerata disc along with chamber works by Korngold and Schoenberg. And Domus includes it in their two-disc set of Brahms’s complete piano quartets on Virgin Classics. Comparing these recordings with the new one from the Avery Ensemble, I am hard pressed to understand why we have heard so little from this group until now. Here are four musicians whose technical perfection and polish are equally matched by the sumptuous sound they produce and the depth of interpretive insight they exhibit. For the Mahler alone, I would urge you to purchase this disc.

Placing Alfred Schnittke’s 1988 Piano Quartet on the same program with Mahler and Brahms seems at first a bit perverse. As it turns out, however, the connection between the Mahler and the Schnittke pieces is an inseparable one. Mahler sketched 24 bars of a Scherzo movement in G Minor—believed to be intended for his unfinished piano quartet— before abandoning it. It is this fragment that Schnittke draws upon for his own piano quartet. To extract from cellist Hans Twitchell’s informative insert note, Schnittke “appropriates Mahler’s piano quartet Scherzo fragment in G minor whose melody is heard seventeen times during the piece. Schnittke places Mahler’s melody in opposition to a musical entity that attempts to break down and assimilate it, perhaps to devour and digest it. Schnittke’s signature spiral cell—a four-note circular motif, i.e., E?, D, C, C? is ubiquitous to the material constituting this ‘entity.’ Mahler’s melody (diatonicism, the individual, time, history?) takes on the musical persona of a protagonist in a struggle that plays out in the four episodes that form the work.”

From here, Twitchell launches into a detailed analysis of each section of the piece too lengthy to quote in this space. All of it, of course, makes for fascinating reading; but the significant question is: does Schnittke’s “aberrational encounter between two incompatible dimensions” make for fascinating listening? The answer to that question will depend on individual tastes and perceptions. For me, it’s an hour-long root canal without anesthetic compressed into six-and-a-half minutes. The new military rules of engagement for prisoner interrogation should ban it as a form of torture outlawed by the Geneva Conventions. I have to assume that the Avery Ensemble does the piece justice; but who can say?

Brahms’s first, largest, and most sprawling piano quartet, the G-Minor, op. 25, with its famous Rondo alla zingarese finale also has a connection, though an oblique one, to Mahler. Schoenberg became a great admirer of Mahler and cultivated a personal relationship with him; and it was Schoenberg who would eventually orchestrate Brahms’s G-Minor Piano Quartet. Here the Avery Ensemble goes up against a number of top contenders for pride of place, among which may be cited the aforementioned Domus, a stunner with Julia Fischer and Lars Vogt on EMI, the Leopold Trio on Hyperion, Rubinstein with members of the Guarneri Quartet on RCA, and, of course, the Beaux Arts Trio now available on PentaTone in SACD format.

The Avery yields nothing to any of them technically or interpretively. In fact, their take on the third movement Andante con moto, is quite arresting. Its midsection, march-like episode, with its precise triplet articulations and its increasing angst reach a doom-laden climax that is not just gripping but actually frightening. My favorite version of this work—in fact, of all three Brahms piano quartets—has long been Domus’s performances on Virgin Classics; but I would have to say this reading by the Avery Ensemble now equals or even possibly edges out that preference.

Despite the fact that I hate the Schnittke piece with a hate that is perfect, I have to concede that this is an exceptionally intelligently programmed CD. And with playing like this in the Mahler and Brahms it would be mean-spirited indeed if I begrudged this release the strongest recommendation possible.

FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
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Works on This Recording

1. Quartet for Piano and Strings in A minor by Gustav Mahler
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Avery Ensemble
Period: Romantic 
Written: ?1876-78; Vienna, Austria 
2. Quartet for Piano and Strings [after sketches by Mahler] by Alfred Schnittke
Period: Contemporary 
Written: 1988; Russia 
3. Quartet for Piano and Strings no 1 in G minor, Op. 25 by Johannes Brahms
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1855-1861; Germany 

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