Ara Gregorian, artistic director of the Four Seasons Chamber Music Festival at East Carolina University, reached back to previous concerts to program the finale in the 2012-13 Season, with one notable exception. He picked a seldom-heard piano Quintet in A minor, Op. 84, by Edward Elgar and a much more familiar piano Quintet In E-flat, Op. 44, by Robert Schumann as the main works on the program. Both were performed at separate concerts in 2008, and parts of the Schumann quintet also have appeared in more recent concerts in the festival’s Next Generation series.
The exception was a gem by Frédéric Chopin, Introduction and Polonaise Brillante in C, Op. 3, which was new to most listeners. This piece opened the concert at Fletcher Recital Hall and provided a fine way to hear guest cellist Ani Aznavoorian and guest pianist Adam Neiman on their own. The composition contains a nice balance between the two instruments and offers a particularly good way to appreciate the richness of the cello sound. Ms Aznavoorian did not disappoint, bringing a gorgeous fullness and singing tone to her part. She played the opening melody of the introduction beautifully and the main theme of the polonaise with great intensity. Neiman handled his part with grace and elegance, providing crisp articulation, as well as appropriate flourish and ornamentation, without going over the top. And one noticeable aspect of the composition: there was a lot of notes to be played up and down the keyboard and up and down the neck of the cello, especially in the second alla polacca section, and the energy and skill of both Aznavoorian and Neiman never wavered.
Elgar’s piano quintet is quite a marvelous piece, with hints of gypsy airs, little dances and lush romanticism mixed into a pleasing whole. Gregorian played lead violin and was joined by violinist Axel Strauss and violist Maria Lambros, in addition to Neiman and Aznavoorian. The ensemble sound was excellent throughout, from the three-note figure at the opening, in which the players sounded as if they were tip-toeing through the score, to the gorgeous middle adagio to the intensity of the final andante-allegro movement.
The opening moderato-allegro movement seems to stay in a minor-key mode much of the time as it frequently shifts in intensity from occasionally light and dainty to full-bodied and emphatic. The music shifts in sound, too, from harmonies that resemble eastern European to more typical English pastoral scoring. Parts of the movement are Elgar at his most muscular, and the hall was filled with intense music-making, with all five players pouring themselves into the score. The second adagio movement has an elegy-like quality, and the musicians played with great emotion, notably in a piano-cello duet section and exposed viola passages. The final andante-allegro movement opens with great intensity and included a lovely duet between Gregorian and Strauss on violins, a hint of a slow Viennese-style waltz. Portions of this movement actually sounded as if they were part of a grand waltz scored for full orchestra.
Schumann’s piano quintet is filled with terrific melodies and offers the musicians a chance to play in various smaller configurations, as well as in a full quintet of equal partners. At times, the piano is the dominant instrument, and Neiman played with power and finesse. At other times Aznavoorian’s cello and Lambros’ viola had compelling lead lines, backed by Strauss on first violin and Gregorian on second violin. The opening theme in the allegro brillante movement, a forceful 12-note figure, returns often throughout and contrasts nicely with quieter moments. The second movement, titled “in the manner of a march,” actually starts like a funeral march; it is a slow and somber minor-key section with fragments of silence that add to the drama of the score. The movement nears its end with the first violin repeating the slow march, followed by the second violin, followed by the viola, each in the quietest of voices.
The third scherzo movement opens with Neiman executing an emphatic ascending run on the piano, which is repeated several times. This is an exciting section, with the piano as the dominant instrument through several shifts in tone. The fourth allegro ma non troppo movement also shifts tone frequently from forceful to lyrical and comes to an end with an exciting fugue — and even a hint of a bagpipe drone! Neiman’s piano held all the disparate parts together nicely, an especially equal partner throughout the entire quintet.
The festival has concluded its 13th season after having played 11 concerts in Greenville, three in New Bern and one in Raleigh, along with providing master classes and open rehearsals. Gregorian undoubtedly has begun to put together the guest performers and repertoire for the 14th season in 2013-14, and one hopes that he further explores the chamber repertoire to include some of the bedrock components — Haydn string quartets, for example, or the Dvořák “American” quartet or a Borodin quartet or Boccherini quintet. Perhaps repeats of previously played works could be highlights of the popular Next Generation concerts. Nevertheless, the festival is a true delight, from first concert to last, and those in the eastern half of the state who are not familiar with this series will not be disappointed whenever they join the audience.