Monday nights are usually not the busiest night of the week for musical performances (traditionally, in New York at least, they are the “night off” when jazz musicians can play what they want with whom they want), but nevertheless a substantial crowd came close to filling the Recital Hall at the UNC Greensboro School of Music for a chamber music program presenting three different ensembles including Eastern Music Festival teaching faculty as well as guest artist Ignat Solzhenitsyn.
First up was the Mozart Quintet for Piano and Winds in E-flat, K 452, a mature work for a rather unusual combination, with William Wolfram, piano, Randall Ellis, oboe, Anthony Taylor, clarinet, George Sakakeeny, bassoon, and Kevin Reid, horn. The four winds, plus the flute, make up the standard wind quintet, for which there is a large and rewarding repertoire; but the combination of these four with piano is quite rare, with the only other significant piece being the quintet Op. 16 by Beethoven, perhaps because of the difficulties of balancing the dynamics of the winds and the keyboard. A listener aware of period instruments would realize that, in contrast to a string quartet or quintet, this particular combination makes use of instruments that have entirely changed their sounds and appearance since Mozart wrote the work in 1784, from the piano, probably twice the size and four times the weight of Mozart’s little instrument, to the woodwinds, with their complex key-systems, and the horn, which for Mozart would have been a simple natural horn with an E-flat crook, and very different sounds for different notes. The music is clearly led by the concertant piano part, and William Wolfram played with wonderful elegance, every note clear and beautifully shaped, and never giving the listener the sense that the sonic resources of the modern concert grand affected the expression (I would love to hear Wolfram on a fortepiano!). The balance of the winds and the piano, and the winds among themselves, was excellent, although I had the feeling that oboist Randall Ellis scarcely ever played above piano, a marvel of restraint and control.
Completing the first half was the recent (2003) two-movement Piano Trio by Jennifer Higdon. Higdon is an American composer (b. 1962) who studied composition at the University of Pennsylvania with George Crumb, and has been notably successful, winning the Pulitzer Prize in 2010 for her Violin Concerto. Nevertheless not all the critical reception has been positive, with one pundit calling her Concerto for Orchestra “supremely forgettable.” On the evidence of the Piano Trio, I would lean in the latter direction. The first movement, “Pale Yellow,” begins with open chords from the piano (think Copland in his “American” vein), and continues with yearning lines from the cello and later the violin, all set within a very diatonic framework with no significant chordal motion, and no resolutions. The only harmonic motion that does occur (about two-thirds of the way through) is both unprepared and deeply kitsch, as is the cadence that finally closes the movement. Ugh. The second movement, “Fiery Red,” is as full of angst as the first was placid, with incessant sawing from the strings (repeated chromatic sixteenths) and banging from the piano, and virtually no contrast (a slightly less noisy moment with rocking minor-thirds). The final chord was banged with such emphasis by pianist Gideon Rubin that he stood up, with a look of satisfaction; excellent playing by Rubin, violinist Catherine Cary, and cellist Neal Cary, but in service of an essentially empty, sophomoric piece of music.
After intermission came the Robert Schumann Piano Quartet in E-flat, Op. 47, with Ignat Solzhenitsyn, piano, joined by Jessica Guideri, violin, Mara Gearman, viola, and Julian Schwarz, cello. This is certainly one of the composer’s most successful chamber works, richly expressive, and compact in its form. Schumann solves the eternal question of “do we repeat the exposition?” in the first movement by returning to the slow opening after the cadence of the dominant – but then continuing immediately on to the development. Solzhenitsyn demonstrated a supreme and clearly Russian technique, with amazing clarity of articulation, particularly in repeated notes. The Scherzo, marked Molto Vivace was taken “Presto possibile,” with impressive unanimity of ensemble between Schwarz’s cello and the left hand of the piano. Guideri and Gearman were on the same high level, and the result was music on such a level that the audience brought the performers back four times for a standing ovation. Memorable music-making!