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MUSIC REVIEW : Stern & Co. Play Intimate Fare in Wide-Open Spaces


Slowly, and in single line--like complete strangers about to board a plane--Isaac Stern, Jaime Laredo, Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax shuffled dispassionately onto the stage of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion after intermission on Wednesday night, ready to perform Brahms' G-minor Piano Quartet.

But when they started to play, resuming their Pavilion concert before a sold-out house--with an additional 88 seats put onstage for the overflow--it was immediately clear that these four famous musicians do indeed know one another, very well.

Brahms' beloved Opus 25 certainly brought out the best in them: From the long-celebrated Stern, this year noting his 70th birthday, the effortless virtuosity and sweet, pointed tone of yore.

From violinist Laredo, this night promoted to viola, the glowing, splendid, mellow soloism in which he seems to indulge when playing the lower-voiced instrument.

From Ma, strong and affectionate support to his colleagues in music that is not always grateful for the cellist.

From pianist Ax, Brahmsian authority, discreet leadership, probing musicality and feathery lightness where required.

Not that this was a definitive reading, or that the Pavilion is the best place to hear the work. Yet, it was a cherishable performance, deeply felt, handsomely executed, resonant in ensemble.

It faltered in the finale, where both stamina and excitement flagged--should we blame Brahms for an overlong buildup?--and where all four players seemed to fail to find their second wind. But, before that, the joys of Brahmsian passion and reflection abounded. The piece sounded as touching as it can.

The cavernous Pavilion, an auditorium officially seating 3,185 listeners, is not an appropriate site for genuine chamber music--which this piece is, of course. The large room proved even less appropriate to the two works which preceded the intermission, Mozart's piano/violin Sonata in A, K. 305, and the Second Piano Quartet by Gabriel Faure.

Beginning the evening with the Sonata in A, violinist Stern and his younger partner sounded and looked distant to most members of their audience. No sense of balance ever took hold in this apparently careful, probably well-spoken reading. Ax was perhaps not overstating, yet the sound he produced on the handsome, new Steinway at his disposal seemed to dwarf Stern's alternately vigorous and tactful violin playing. Blame the room.

Faure's beauteous, faceted and emotionally complex Quartet in G minor challenged the players; they responded, as far as one could tell, with directness, heat and mechanical precision.

Still, the acoustical situation defeated their efforts at ensemble and interplay. Inaudibility was not the problem--most of the notes carried well into the room. Presence was. Reaching listeners is at least partly a function of delivering sound at close proximity. When the place is too big, the delivery is effectively not made.

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