by Lindsay Koob
One of the first things that came out of Geoff’s mouth Sunday afternoon was “Elvis was nothing compared to Haydn.” Not surprising, considering the missionary zeal he confessed to earlier in the festival for this composer who invented the string quartet form. Only this time, we got to hear one of the old master’s piano trios. It’s a marvel of graceful beauty and delicacy until the third and final movement, with its more exuberant Hungarian (or Gypsy) flavors. It’s no surprise that Papa Haydn wrote lots of Hungarian-style music, as he spent most of his career working for the royal family at the Esterhazy estate in Hungary, and he knew what tickled his noble boss’s fancy. Geoff bounced back onstage afterward, doing a little dance step or two, while enthusing “I just wanna let out a big whoop right in the middle of that one!”
Next, we came as close as we ever will to hearing Johannes Brahms himself perform. Composer-in-residence Jonathan Berger got an old LP from Geoff containing an 1880’s-vintage Edison wax-cylinder recording (Jonathan is a colleague of Geoff’s at Stanford). It’s of the old master himself playing part of his first Hungarian Dance, from a smash-hit piano cycle that had earned him big bucks earlier in his career. For comparison’s sake, they played back a recording of the original, which was about 95 percent static, with faint and ghostly piano sounds coming through here and there. Berger works regularly with a computer shop at Stanford, which developed a program to filter out as much extraneous noise as possible. The resulting restoration was further refined by substituting actual sampled piano notes and copying them to a disc that can be played back on the “Disclavier,” the computer age’s answer to the old player piano. It was quite the amazing experience: hearing the entirely different style of piano phrasing and dynamics that Brahms (an accomplished piano virtuoso) knocked 'em dead with way back when. Wow!
And that set up the next (and final) work nicely: Brahms' ultra-passionate early Piano Quartet in G Minor. It’s a broad, sweeping miracle of romantic intensity, with a glittering and gutsy Gypsy-inspired finale. Aside from the gorgeous music, the greatest pleasure came from the folks who played it: Livia Sohn (violin), Barry Schiffman (viola), and Alisa Weilerstein (cello). But it was a particular joy to hear Inon Barnaton, in his first series appearance at the piano. A real rising star in the piano world, he’s an absolutely fabulous chamber musician, with a subtle and supremely expressive touch that takes your breath away. While they didn’t miss a bit of the work’s passion, I’d swear that the other musicians hung back just a little bit in the first three movements to allow us to fully savor the unearthly delicacy and precision of his playing. But — along with his distinguished colleagues — he tore ferociously into the glittering Hungarian finale, bringing the house down, or, rather, up, as the enchanted crowd sprang noisily to their feet.
You’ve really gotta come hear this guy; they’ll be showing him off in all four of the remaining series programs.