Even with the advantage of history, it’s hard to imagine that Johannes Brahms’ Piano Quartet in G Minor, Op 25, would have ever generated uncertainty or puzzlement in anyone. It’s said that Clara Schumann had slight misgivings about the work, as did critic and Brahms supporter, Eduard Hanslick, who thought it “dry.” Performances of the work after its premiere in 1861, though, have certainly contradicted those impressions. Enthusiastic audiences have adored the work’s cleverness and unrelenting momentum.
Those characteristics—and more—sprang with sizzle from the stage of the Powell Recital Hall last evening at the University of Tennessee School of Music in a recital featuring a quartet assembled by violin faculty member Geoffrey Herd from friends and colleagues: violist Eric Wong, cellist Max Geissler, and pianist Cahill Smith. The foursome brought a performance of the Brahms quartet that was as energetic and compelling as any in recent memory.
It was also hard to imagine that this wasn’t an ensemble that performs together on a regular basis. Their playing was tight and dynamically conversational, and featured a finessed tonal balance. They handled the broad design of the work with sensational energy and intuitive responsiveness, capturing the Brahms arc of momentum that leads from the unusual cleverness of the opening movement to the finale, a splendid take on the addictive Rondo alla Zingarese: Presto.
The works leading up to the Brahms, chosen to impress without overshadowing, featured the four musicians in combinations. The recital was opened by Herd and Wong in Mozart’s Duo for Violin and Viola, K. 423. That was followed by cellist Geissler and pianist Cahill in American composer George Rochberg’s Ricordanza: Soliloquy, for cello and piano. Cahill finished off the first half of the program with Primavera, op. 39, no. 3, by the undeservedly lesser known Russian composer, Nikolai Medtner.
• Eric Wong (viola) is the violist of the Cavani Quartet, the ensemble-in-residence at the Cleveland Institute of Music.
• Max Geissler (cello) is pursuing his Doctor of Musical Arts at Rice University.
• Cahill Smith (piano) is on the piano faculty of Lee University in Cleveland, TN.
• Geoffrey Herd (violin) has been Lecturer of Violin at the UT School of Music since 2016. Herd studied at the Cleveland Institute of Music, Yale School of Music, and the Shepherd School of Music at Rice University.