Péter Tóth

By Scott MacClelland

FOR HIS CURRENT tour, pianist Péter Tóth chose a program more for pianists and piano students than music lovers. He performed it for the Distinguished Artists series in Santa Cruz on November 3, and at Hidden Valley in Carmel Valley on Monday night. Heard at the latter venue, it was easy to cheer on the 36-year-old Tóth for his display of fine pianism though the music he selected largely came with little substance.

As a musical form, variations generally makes for a hard sell, unless for the purpose of showcasing technical prowess. Handel’s Chaconne in G—variations over a repeating bass line—opened the concert’s first half. Beethoven’s early Variations on “God Save the King” closed it.

Liszt’s gaseously inflated Variations on a Motif by JS Bach began the second half. Its Bach-quote is a descending bass line, repeating like the Handel chaconne. Tóth’s virtuosity carried these pieces but, owing to their artistic limitations, with only momentary impact. Fans of pianistic virtuosity however rewarded them long and loudly.

At 23 minutes, the longest piece on the program, the early Sonata in D, K311, by Mozart sparkled as it should but is pale stuff compared with the late works where artistic depth—both compositional and interpretive—makes all the difference. (‘Late,’ if you believe death at age 35 qualifies.) Then followed Schubert’s Impromptu in F Minor from Op142, a minor masterpiece in A-B-A form and an exceptionally imaginative concentration of invention. It proved to be memorable; its tunes are still playing in my head as I write this. (Schubert didn’t get late; he died at 31.)

Bartók’s four movement Suite, Op 14, written in 1916, sounds folkloric but is all original. It predates the composer’s incorporation of rural modes and earthy rhythms—“peasant” music—that he and fellow composer Kodály had collected in Transylvanian and Carpathian villages. (It was those influences that once incorporated in his mature works established Bartók’s lasting reputation as a great 20th century original.) For the last movement, Sostenuto, Tóth produced a delicately poetic quietude.   

The other music lovers’ treat, and packed with virtuosity, was the perennial favorite, Chopin’s Andante spianato and Grande Polonaise Brillante, that ended the recital. Three curtain calls garnered an encore, a three-minute charm Tóth called Miniature Suite.


Modigliani Quartet

By Scott MacClelland

I WAS TAKEN BY SURPRISE at the Modigliani Quartet’s performance Sunday afternoon in Carmel. Their performance of Mozart’s Quartet in C, K 465, known as the “Dissonant,” surpassed even my most hopeful expectations. But their reading of Brahms’ Quartet in A Minor threw me a curve, a seeming perversion of the composer’s intension.   

The Brahms Quartet in A Minor is a lyrical, songful piece which, in the hands of the Modigliani, emphasized a turbulence that altered its character, especially in the first and last allegro movements. Their approach must have been by design but it distorted a facet of the composer’s artistic personality. Or did it? After Beethoven and Schubert, and a few other examples from the early 19th century, the string quartet as a form appeared to run out of gas. Brahms stepped up to revive it, in fits and starts. This work falls short of his most popular chamber music, thanks largely to its densely contrapuntal and canonic textures and often somber moods. Modigliani made it sound far more avant-garde, as if Brahms had 20th century foresight. (Indeed, Arnold Schoenberg, among others, thought of this piece that way.) The ‘lyrical, songful’ qualities of the outer movements were given sharply articulated points and angles, which certainly underscored the harmonic scheme and key relationships. The slow movement’s animated central section was actually more like a gentle stirring of wind. The Quasi minuet’s trio section only slightly more so. The finale is a hybrid sonata-rondo that gave the first violinist, Amaury Coeytaux, plenty of virtuoso calisthenics.

The opening Mozart by contrast was pure seduction, from the dissonantly throbbing—think 20th century—opening to the unfolding of its bejeweled treasury. The work is the last of six quartets Mozart dedicated to Haydn and inspired most specifically by Haydn’s Op. 33 set of string quartets. It was plain from the outset how attuned the players were to one another and to the set of four 18th century violins and cello and 17th century viola. Mozart spiced the music with whole tones and chromatics that subtly reminds the listener of the weird beginning moments, which Modigliani broadened out before settling into its cheerful allegro first theme. Mozart extended the recap of the opening theme group as the movement drew to a close. Then came the Andante cantabile, all sighs and irresistible sweet nothings, with doubtful sideways glances and occasional points of punctuation. François Kieffer’s cello gave the movement its foundational support. The Menuetto swaggers smartly and contains a tiny syncopated bit that Haydn seized on in the corresponding movement in his Symphony No. 104, and to even wilder effect in the big first movement of Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony. The trio section turns the color dark and the mood aggressive. The final Allegro molto, like the first, uses sonata form to sizzling, surprising effect.

Mozart, here and elsewhere, created music that feels inevitable and effortless—notwithstanding the composer’s protest that he worked as hard at his art as anyone else. The second piece on display, Mendelssohn’s short Capriccio in E Minor, didn’t enjoy that spontaneous gush of the Mozart. Though equally well-played by Modigliani, the Adagio section was no caprice. The Fugue, however, proved to be a runaway steeplechase.

The four Frenchmen play with tremendous authority, and seem to enjoy being old-school, reading from printed parts not the now-often-seen digital tablets.