If you are planning to perform one of the best-known and most beloved works in the chamber music repertoire, you had better have all your ducks in a row - in a very straight row indeed.
Sadly, the McIver Ensemble, performing last Sunday afternoon at the NCMA under the auspices of the Sights and Sounds on Sundays series, did not heed this rule. Violinist John Fadial, violist Scott Rawls and cellist Christopher Hutton, all three from UNC-G, were joined by guest pianist Barbara McKenzie of Wilmington in a program of piano quartets by Fauré and Brahms, both which suffered both from insufficient rehearsal and attention to intonation.
Gabriel Fauré's Piano Quartet in c minor, Op.15, is graceful, warm and lyrical and, like the bulk of his music-whether piano, chamber, vocal or orchestral-conveys the impression of an intimate conversation between the composer and his muse. Unfortunately, starting with the forceful opening phrase, Fadial had intonation problems with his violin which sounded dull and introverted. Rawls, frequently doubled the violin line, but when two musicians playing in octaves or unison have intonation problems it's everybody's fault.
Fauré solved the difficult problem of integrating the piano with the strings by often treating the keyboard instrument in the manner of a harp. In the scherzo, glissando-like runs create a stunning gossamer effect. Unfortunately, McKenzie had fingering problems in the rapid passages and dropped quite a few notes. Only cellist Hutton consistently came in right on the button.
Johannes Brahms's Piano Quartet in g minor, Op.25, is one of the more difficult works in the repertoire. It takes the kind of precise ensemble playing that comes only after the musicians have had prolonged experience of playing together. In the McIver's performance there was clearly a lack of adequate rehearsal, especially noticeable in the intermezzo second movement, with its muted violin, and in the finale Rondo alla Zingarese, where the musicians had serious problems staying together. The frequent voice doubling again presented intonation problems.
Despite the weaknesses of the performance, the ensemble had obviously worked hard to create a dynamic musical interpretation of both works. A little more rehearsal time would have made these interpretive decisions come more to life. As it was the Quartet simply appeared to be laboring too much to bring them off. Perhaps they were as aware as we were of the intonation problems, a situation that could have easily distracted them from the higher interpretive issues. It is indeed a sign of greatness when a our enjoyment of a work survives even a flawed performance.
Cellist Hutton is a newcomer to UNC-G, having replaced Elizabeth Anderson, who moved to New York. A native of New Zealand and a graduate from Boston University and the Eastman School of Music, he has a fine instrument, a fine tone and excellent intonation, and his playing was definitely the highlight of the concert.