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If anyone 10 years ago doubted the likelihood that Greenville would or could support a world-class chamber music series, then that person should have been in A.J. Fletcher Recital Hall on the East Carolina University campus this month. Festival music director Ara Gregorian continues to bring talented players together from all over, and they create interesting, challenging and enriching programs to savor long after the last note fades away.
Such was the case for the first program of the Four Seasons Chamber Music Festival’s 10th anniversary season. On paper, folks might have relished the thought of three piano quartets, perhaps headed by Mozart’s quartet in G minor, but in fact the other two works on the program left Mozart well behind.
The Mozart quartet (K. 478, published in 1787) is a nice piece of music, of course, and the players — violinist Hagai Shaham, cellist Amit Peled and pianist Adam Neiman, in addition to violist Gregorian — certainly brought out its charm and tunefulness. From its stirring unison statement at the beginning of the opening allegro to the lovely ending of the second andante movement to the dance-like playfulness of the rondo movement at the end, this is exquisite Mozart.
The musicians did a wonderful job exchanging leads and coming together for unison passages, such as the six-note figure at the beginning and end of the opening movement. In addition, the timing was perfect in the occasional fragments of silence, the dramatic pauses, especially in the second movement. The unexpected-yet-not-surprising abrupt key change near the climax of the final movement was delivered with great skill.
Spanish composer Joaquin Turina studied in France in the early part of the 20th century but still infused his music with the sounds of his own country. His piano quartet in A minor, Op. 67 (written in 1931) has the sound of contemporary Spain, and it also shimmers with some real beauty. The musicians captured well the musical nuances and range of emotions in the piece, which proved to be an unexpected pleasure for its impressionistic qualities, drama and rich scoring.
Interestingly, Turina’s quartet opens with a strong string unison passage not unlike the Mozart quartet, but there the similarity ends. Turina uses a seven-note figure up and down the scale in the opening lento movement, and the cello gets a long lead passage. In the middle vivo movement, the viola has an expressive if brief lead line, and this lively movement offers quite a Spanish sound in both melody and rhythm.
Shaham played a lovely solo in the emotional andante movement, made all the more interesting with boldly plucked cello and viola parts as accompaniment. All three string parts converged nicely in the highly charged final movement.
Johannes Brahms was not yet 30 when he completed his piano quartet in G minor, Op. 25 (1861), and the piece shows some evidence of youthful exuberance, perhaps even some playfulness. The quartet is a long piece of four movements, as was his next piano quartet. Also, the composition often shows more of the skill of a symphonic composer than a chamber music composer, more orchestral richness than drawing room intimacy. And the composer also ended the piece with a dazzling dance, using almost non-stop up-tempo scoring that demands considerable energy on the part of the musicians.
Gregorian and friends were up to all the tasks and then some. This was music-making of the highest order, and at times one could scarcely believe that only four musicians were on stage. The score covers a wide range of sound and dynamics, from soft pianissimo phrasings to bold and assertive fortissimos, and several pizzicato passages stand out. Each instrument had wonderful exposed lines, and the ensemble playing was gorgeous.
The third movement, andante con moto, was especially emotional, perhaps the high point of the evening (a small yet interesting component: a dissonance in the piano behind a cello passage). The closing rondo had a wonderful line led by Neiman’s piano, played over the three string instruments in pizzicato. The rondo shifted twice from a lively dance to a grand, more heroic, theme and also included a softer, lilting passage, but it still moved to a stunningly energetic conclusion that had the audience on its feet immediately.
All evening, pianist Neiman provided a wonderful voice for the proceedings. In the Mozart quartet, for example, he was an assured, calming presence, leading the other performers as needed, providing a firm accompaniment or even taking on an occasional background role, more like a continuo line. His elegant playing of the theme in the andante movement was especially noteworthy, as was his opening statement of the rondo. In the Turina and Brahms quartets, he exhibited considerable power, as well as finesse.
The strings blended well all evening, too. Peled’s cello often was a musical force to be reckoned with, a strong, vigorous, muscular presence that sang as a lead instrument and that provided firm support as an accompanying instrument. Shaham and Gregorian seemed in total sympathy with each other and never stumbled over or outplayed the other.
The “Bravos” from the audience were richly deserved and signal an extraordinary anniversary season.