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What amounted to a kind of offshoot of the Four Seasons Chamber Music Festival brought a small but appreciative audience to A. J. Fletcher Recital Hall to hear a faculty recital by the new East Carolina University pianist Benjamin Hochman and friends perform two piano quartets by Mozart and Dvorák. The performance featured Hochman, the Israeli-born pianist who joined the ECU faculty in the fall; violist Melissa Reardon from the ECU faculty; violinist Jennifer Koh, who also is Hochman’s wife; and cellist Raman Ramakrishnan, a member of the Daedalus Quartet who also is Reardon’s husband.
More than just a faculty recital, the program displayed first-rate musicianship in both quartets. Hochman, a recent recipient of an Avery Fisher Career Grant, showed his considerable skills in both leading and accompanying passages in the quartets, and the three string players formed a rich ensemble, as well as playing beautifully in solo and duet lines.
Mozart’s generally somber Piano Quartet No. 1 in G minor, K. 478, opens in an allegro movement with an emphatic six-note figure that returns more than once, often in a different key, and it offers interesting pairings of instruments — piano and viola, with violin and cello in the background, for example, and a nice exchange of lines between piano and violin, with cello and viola in the background. Ms. Koh, also an Avery Fisher Career Grant recipient and a frequent recording performer, brought a lovely singing tone to the violin lines, and Ramakrishnan and Ms. Reardon provided substantial musical foundation in the lower registers. The piano solo that opens the melancholy andante movement, echoed by the strings, unfolded into a full ensemble, but the movement also included nice violin-viola duets, supported by Ramakrishnan’s fine playing.
Only in the third rondo: allegro moderato movement, with its familiar opening melody, does some of Mozart’s characteristic light-heartedness come through, and the four players poured considerable energy into this section. The opening theme is heard several times throughout the movement and the surprise non-ending—in which the music builds to a logical climax only to veer off into an unresolved chord — is quite an ear opener. Hochman’s frequent arpeggios and long right-hand tremolo near the end provided a nice accompaniment to the string passages.
Dvorák’s Piano Quartet No. 2 in E-flat, Op. 87, is not as frequently heard as, say, his piano quintet, but it is certainly a fine example of the composer’s work for small ensemble. The piece begins with an almost strident allegro con fuoco that resembles the stark opening of Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” quartet, but then settles into more melodic, if not always gentler, musical territory. This is a darker, more agitated Dvorák, with a greater sense of urgency and a bit less sunny Bohemian disposition. Hochman and Ramakrishnan open the lovely lento movement, backed by the softest violin-viola accompaniment, but the movement also includes some muscular, highly emotional fortissimo passages as well. The piano-cello duets are simply gorgeous and were played gorgeously, and the pianissimo ending in all four parts was beautiful.
The third allegro moderato movement opens as a lovely waltz right out of Vienna, with some almost over-the-top flourishes at the upper end of the keyboard, and here Dvorák again shows his famous gift for melody, as well as a flair for the dramatic as the waltz is followed by a more intense, horserace-like passage, before returning to the waltz theme. The fourth finale: allegro non troppo movement opens vigorously in unison among all parts, and it features nice interplay between piano and plucked strings, as well as a lovely piano-viola duet. The sense of urgency or agitation from the first movement returns here, although one also hears a bit of country dancing, too. The grand final movement could easily have been scored as the ending of a full piano concerto.
Sandwiched between the two quartets was a composition from a different musical realm entirely, a 1925 duo for violin and cello by Erwin Schulhoff, an early 20th century Czech composer whose idiom was firmly in modern music. A prolific composer (several symphonies and even a musical setting of “The Communist Manifesto”) who died in a World War II concentration camp, Schulhoff was influenced by jazz and modern art movements. The music, featuring Ms. Koh and Ramakrishnan, was not an easy piece to process, to be frank, although it did have some interesting moments.
The opening moderato movement had plenty of drama and tension, though not much to savor. Ms. Koh had a prominent ascending line over a drone-like accompaniment from Ramakrishnan, and she had sustained notes in the highest possible pitch, while he also played in the uppermost register of the cello. The second movement, titled “zingaresca: allegro giocoso” — apparently meaning in a playful gypsy style — actually sounded as if based on Native American melodies, and the third andantino movement featured lines that incorporated great leaps and intervals in both instruments. Both the second and third movements included sections that alternated between bowed and plucked playing. The fourth moderato movement seemed to go all over the scale, not to mention pulsing with quirky, shifting rhythms, and called for both violin and cello to play again at the uppermost registers and in a dry, thin tone. The music was not inaccessible, but its prickly nature created some distance between player and listener.