Except for works written for wind ensembles of at least five players, the piano quintet is perhaps the fullest-sounding chamber ensemble, with some passages approaching full concerto-like richness, and some passages possessing the quietest intimacy. Both ends of that sound spectrum, and much in between, were on display during the third subscription concert in the Four Seasons Chamber Music Festival January 10-11 on the campus of East Carolina University.
Artistic director Ara Gregorian chose the classical repertoire’s first piano quintet, Robert Schumann’s Quintet in E-flat, Op. 44 (1842), and Cesar Franck’s Quintet in F minor (1879) as focal points of the program, which he titled “Passion and Elegance.” The Schumann is familiar to many chamber music devotees, the Franck perhaps less so, but both deliver quite a dollop of passion, as well as plenty of elegance. And both received excellent playing from the assembled musicians.
The emphatic opening of the Schumann quintet, with its familiar five-note figure, moves easily into several trio and full ensemble passages that let individual instruments share the spotlight. For instance, cellist Michael Kamen, director of chamber music at the Peabody Conservatory, had lovely leads in the opening allegro brillante movement, and pianist Robert McDonald, who is on the piano faculty at the Juilliard School, provided the firm underpinning for the entire piece, especially in the demanding third movement, a scherzo-molto vivace, with its ascending and descending runs, and fast dance tempo that almost spins out of control.
The main theme of the second movement (“in the mode of a march”) at times sounded as if Schumann were writing his own “March to the Scaffold,” a la Berlioz, a slow, somber, often minor key melody that comes around several times for both solo instruments and full ensemble, yet one that also unfolds into a delicate passage for first violin.
The fourth movement, allegro, ma non troppo, moves to a swirling climax through full ensemble playing, duets and trios, with McDonald providing a solid foundation throughout. Before the ending comes a boisterous fugue led by piano and second violin, and then joined by first violin, then viola, then cello.
Franck’s quintet also embodies both passion and elegance, though leaning much more toward the former than the latter. The quartet of strings begins the piece at an emotional pitch that rarely lets up, and, as in the Schumann quintet, the piano is fully integrated into the score, not in a secondary or background role but as an equal partner in the music making. McDonald contributed several lovely solo passages throughout, in addition to providing wonderful supporting lines, and Gregorian’s viola added a richness of sound.
Ani Kavafian, a performer in the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and an Avery Fisher Prize winner, was first violin in the Franck quintet, and Joseph Genualdi was second violin (they had switched positions in the earlier Schumann quintet), and she displayed warmth and purity of tone as lead player — in the lovely singing lines in the second movement, for instance — and in supporting passages as well. Genualdi, artistic director of the Chicago Chamber Musicians and violin and chamber music teacher at the North Carolina School of the Arts, opened in the lead of the third movement, joined by Kavafian, in a passage that sounded like a bumblebee.
Among other interesting impressions of the Franck quintet were a surprising number of passages throughout in which the four string players played in unison, providing a denseness to the sound not often associated with quartets or quintets. And the first movement in particular contains passages that seem to foretell brief portions of Franck’s Symphony in D-minor, which was still eight years off.
The concert opened with another of Schubert’s “unfinished” works, this a short String Trio in B-flat, (D.471). Kavafian, Kamen and Gregorian were in top form, from the lovely, simple melody at the beginning to the more serious sounding minor key portion and back to the opening key. Again, Kavafian’s singing violin was a delight to hear.
Two sound problems detracted slightly: At times, Genualdi’s violin lines sounded dry, almost brittle, which occasionally affected the blend, and the pedal action in the piano caused a momentary yet noticeable upward drift of tone — sort of an ascending musical diphthong — when McDonald released a sustained note or chord, particularly in the Franck quintet.
Still, the concert was another successful outing for what has become one of the top performing arts programs in the eastern half of the state.