Rare is the concert in which anything by Mozart finishes runner-up to some other composer's work. But such was the case at the second subscription concert, "Quartets for Autumn," in the Four Seasons Chamber Music Festival at East Carolina University's Fletcher Recital Hall.
It's not that Mozart received bad playing, far from it. Nor is it the case that the work was a throwaway. It's just that the other two works on the program were chosen and played so stunningly that Wolfgang didn't stand much of a chance to be the star.
Festival artistic director Ara Gregorian chose Mozart's Piano Quartet in E-flat, K. 493, to open the program and Antonin Dvorák's Piano Quartet in E-flat, Op. 87, to close the program. The dominant key was about the only thing the two pieces had in common.
For the Mozart quartet, Gregorian (viola) was joined by violinist Jennifer Frautschi, cellist Amit Peled and pianist Adam Neiman. It's hard to say who had the best lines, but Neiman’s piano definitely was not just a supporting instrument. He opened each of the three movements, and at times, the piece sounded like a scaled-down piano concerto, though unison string playing frequently came around in the score, notably in the opening allegro movement.
The players showed nice contrast between the melancholy larghetto movement and the sprightly allegretto movement at the end, and Mozart included one prominent musical joke in the piece. After the piano and violin exchange a lively musical line, the piano finishes the violin's line with a single note!
The performers played especially well the smaller combinations of instruments in the score. A brief piano-violin duet makes way for a viola lead, then a viola-piano duet, then a cello lead, and all four players showed such connection with the music and each other that the performance sustained an emotional intensity through to the end.
The closing work by Dvorák was neither bucolic nor pastoral, as one often hears in much of that composer's lovely melodies. Instead, this was Dvorák at his most muscular, his most intense.
In fact, this was Dvorák at his most Brahmsian. His work had drawn Brahms’ favorable attention 12 years earlier, and the two became friends and admirers in the last quarter of the 19th century. The four-movement quartet has beautiful passages, to be sure, but they are shorter in duration, not lengthy song-like melody lines.
The performers (the same as in the Mozart quartet) clearly had command of the material, showing the widest range of dynamic shadings. In the first movement, allegro con fuoco, Frautschi and Gregorian had several nice duet passages played over Peled's pizzicato cello, and Peled had a lead cello line over the violin and viola pizzicato playing.
The slow, dreamy melody of the second movement, lento, contrasted nicely with the waltz rhythm and brief near-gallop of the third movement, allegro moderato, grazioso. The fourth movement was mostly emotion, muscle and intensity, with hardly time for the performers to take a breath.
The middle work in the concert was perhaps the best of all (a toss-up with the Dvorák) — Anton Arensky's String Quartet in A minor, Op. 35. A student of Rimsky-Korsakov and Tchaikovsky, Arensky showed both the late 19th century Russian romanticism and the approach of the 20th century in this work.
What makes this piece so extraordinary is the gorgeous second movement, for which Arensky chose a simple melody by Tchaikovsky and constructed seven additional variations. Some time later, he orchestrated this movement, a version that many listeners would find more familiar.
The piece also is unusual (perhaps rare) in the chamber music repertoire because it is scored for violin, viola and two cellos. Gregorian, Frautschi and Peled were joined by cellist Emanuel Gruber for this piece, and the twin cello playing of Gruber and Peled was quite formidable indeed.
This quartet starts slowly and softly in a minor key, the theme taken from a church hymn, followed by several short and intense bursts of melody. The second movement is an homage to Tchaikovsky, based on one of Tchaikovsky's "16 Children's Songs," and features various musical statements that use each of the four instruments prominently, either alone or in tandem with others. Especially lovely were the next-to-last variation, a waltz, and the last variation, which includes a ghostly violin-viola duet.
The quartet ended with an andante sostenuto-allegro moderato that included a near-fugue-like passage and pairs of instruments trading off the main musical statements.
The playing of all five musicians in the concert was extraordinary. They exhibited considerable passion and sympathy for both the music and each other. Neiman's piano in particular deserves praise, because the piano is so prominent in both the Mozart and Dvorák quartets. Proper adjectives are becoming a scarce commodity when describing performances such as this.