Intensity, elegance and continuous melody were the hallmarks of the Four Seasons Chamber Music Festival's second program, which focused on piano quartets by two Old Masters and one less well known composer whose work was shorter but almost every bit as intense, elegant and melodious.
Artistic director Ara Gregorian on violin was joined by fellow East Carolina University faculty member Benjamin Hochman on piano and by Peabody Conservatory faculty members Maria Lambros on viola and Amit Peled on cello. Together, they created a seamless sound as a full quartet and in smaller combinations of instruments, and each player had moments of spotlight as well.
The highlight of the program might well have been Robert Schumann's gorgeous Piano Quartet in E-flat, Op. 47, if for no other reason than the passionate reading by the players of the familiar third andante cantabile movement, led by Hochman's piano and Peled's cello. The lovely main theme—a song, really—returns at least three times, with Lambros also taking the lead melody line on viola. But other sections were just as captivating. The first sostenuto assai-allegro ma non troppo movement begins with a somber, almost hymn-like theme, but the music quickly shifts personality into a bright and lively section, contrasting wonderful piano scoring with that for the three stringed instruments. The second scherzo: molto vivace movement opens with furious playing by the cello and piano, quickly joined by violin and viola. At times the sound was almost like buzzing insects, or perhaps a movie chase scene, and this movement was notable for the incredibly fast fingering by all three string players on the necks of their instruments.
Following the lovely andante cantabile, the Schumann quartet closed with a bold finale: vivace movement, which occasionally resembled a piano concerto in miniature. Hochman's emphatic playing was never forced, and Lambros, whose role in the other two works seemed to be more of a supporting player, had prominent leads frequently in the entire Schumann quartet, especially at the beginning of the final movement.
The less well known composer on the program was Englishman Frank Bridge, whose Phantasy for Piano Quartet in F-sharp minor opened the concert. A teacher of Benjamin Britten, Bridge wrote this piece as a commission in 1910, and it fits nicely in the kind of late 19th century and early 20th century British musical composition that one often associates with Holst and Elgar. For a brief work, played without pause, the quartet mixes sheer melody with emotion, tension and drama. Bridge incorporated several shifts in mood and tempo, and the players are given several opportunities for solo passages, as well as nice duet sections among different combination of instruments. The Four Seasons quartet captured well the intricacies of the piece, and was especially skilled at combining increasing intensity and high romanticism in propelling the work toward its conclusion, which featured the softest string trio against a lush piano figure.
The "heaviest" work on the program was Johannes Brahms' third piano quartet in C-minor, Op. 60, and this 1874 piece, reworked from an earlier 1856 composition, contains scoring that is both near-orchestral and more intimate. The opening allegro ma non troppo movement is vigorous, with all four instruments often giving dense, full sound. The second scherzo: allegro movement is pure energy, almost from start to finish, although there are brief contrasting sections of lightness and lyricism. Hochman's piano, as effortless as it seemed, often was the driving force behind this section. The players finally get to catch their collective breath in the third andante movement, which included some lovely duets, especially by Hochman and Peled, Gregorian and Peled, and Gregorian and Lambros. The opening cello-piano duet in this movement was quite similar to the opening of the andante cantabile movement in the Schumann quartet that followed.
Gregorian led the beginning of the fourth finale: allegro comodo movement, but Hochman provided crucial underpinning for this section, with elegant flourishes and emphatic chords near the ending. A brief shift in mood a few measures before the end indicated perhaps a more somber closing, but two bold unison chords, played fortissimo, punctuate the quartet with stirring emphasis.
As usual, this was another stellar performance in this series, now in its 12th season. The two andantes by Schumann and Brahms alone were worth the price of admission and should be included in a "greatest hits" selection by the chamber festival.