The program's theme was "The Road Less Traveled," indicating the intent of Ara Gregorian, artistic director of the Four Seasons Chamber Music Festival, to bring to audience attention some compositions less well known. No "Trout Quintet" or "Emperor Quartet" or "Dumky Trio" this time around.
Instead, a piano quintet by Ernő Dohnányi, late 19th and early 20th century Hungarian better known for his talent as a pianist perhaps than as a composer (he also is the grandfather of conductor Christoph von Dohnányi). Furthermore, the piece on the program, the Piano Quintet No. 1 in C minor, Op. 1, was from Dohnányi's student days, started when he was 17 years old. Surely, this must be some kind of musical trifle?
No way. Full of gorgeous melodies and interesting scoring, the piano quintet was the star of the evening, and Gregorian chose wisely when seeking a chamber piece that few if any audience members ever had heard before. The quintet, as performed by Gregorian on first violin, violinist Axel Strauss, violist Maria Lambros, cellist Amit Peled, and pianist Adam Neiman, proved to be the kind of piece that gives chamber music a good name and the kind that could send listeners to find a recorded version to add to their collection.
The quintet's opening allegro movement is marked by both youthful energy and drama as it begins with a forceful piano introduction played over plucked strings and then unfolds into an emotional opening statement. Several lovely passages come throughout, contrasted sharply by a strong unison passage near the end that signals a buildup to the conclusion. Neiman's playing was especially fine, and the ensemble string playing was excellent.
The busy scherzo, further marked allegro vivace, contained a lively five-note figure handed from one string player to the next that reappeared two more times. Taken alone, the sequence might not be so memorable, but the composer came back to this sequence as a way to provide some continuity between other musical statements and themes, including a lovely slower passage about midway through.
Lambros and Neiman opened the third adagio movement with a beautiful duet which then was echoed by Gregorian and Peled. This movement had the feeling of a song, and a love song at that, and high emotion and expressive playing marked the movement from start to finish. The movement closed with a beautiful dialog between Gregorian and Neiman. Perhaps this is the movement that has caused observers to categorize the quintet as "Brahmsian" rather than Hungarian. But that should be considered a compliment for, and not a criticism of, the youthful composer.
After a spirited opening section of the finale (allegro animato-allegro), whose theme returned twice before the close, Dohnányi incorporated a fugue into the music, and this provided a nice if brief contrast to the rest of the movement. Starting with cello-viola-second violin-first violin, the fugue was repeated but with different sequences of instruments before returning to the opening theme. This section actually resembled the grand finale to a piano concerto — one could imagine the strings of a full orchestra providing support to the soloist as the music builds in intensity to a splendid (and splashy) conclusion.
The program opened with Dmitri Shostakovich's Piano Quintet in G minor, Op. 57, a lengthy five-movement work from 1940 that proved quite accessible to the audience. Each player had a chance to take center stage, and there were also moments of fine ensemble playing.
Neiman opened with an extended solo piano line, and as the string players joined, Peled's cello was the dominant voice. Strauss, on first violin, provided exquisite playing as lead instrument among the strings, especially in the soft solo passage and in the uppermost register of the instrument. His tone also was lovely in the opening of the second movement, a fugue marked adagio, playing a meditative theme built on quite a slow tempo, followed by and the addition of single instruments one at a time in restating the theme. But this movement also contained some of the prickliest musical moments, with a high-pitched unison passage proving almost too shrill to appreciate. The movement did return to the opening fugue theme, quieter and more somber, before building to an emotional close.
The scherzo, an allegretto in the middle of the quintet, was a rollicking good time, showing the composer's good humor, maybe with a sly wink, and Strauss infused the dance-like figure with considerable energy. Peled's pizzicato cello provided a nice contrast to Strauss' solo violin line in the fourth movement (intermezzo: lento), and Strauss and Neiman offered a nice duet before the movement closed.
The finale was filled with intensity and drama as well as elegance and grace, and interesting solo passages contrasted nicely with full ensemble playing. Neiman was especially busy throughout, either providing a subtle drum-like rhythmic accompaniment or launching into a bold musical statement over the strings. In some respects, this movement condensed much of what had gone before, but rather than close with a forceful musical statement, the composer chose to bring the piece to an end with the lightest touch.
Ravel's "La Valse" also was on the program, in a two-piano version played by Neiman and ECU keyboard faculty member Keiko Sekino. This is a wonderful piece that was wonderfully played. The performers themselves provided a nice contrast, with Ms. Sekino again exhibiting considerable grace and Neiman showing just a bit of flamboyance. But their playing together was well executed, highlighted by a great range of dynamics, spot-on timing, and both subtlety and power.