The 15th season of the Four Seasons Chamber Music Festival at East Carolina University began with one chamber music classic, one piece of chamber music that could be a classic-in-waiting, and three new faces. Taken together, it was quite an auspicious start to the 2014-15 year.
The new players were pianist Gilles Vonsattel and violinist Erin Keefe, both of whom have been associated with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, and cellist David Requiro, a founder of the Baumer String Quartet, who also has been associated with the Jupiter Symphony Chamber Players in New York and Concertante (of which Four Seasons AD Ara Gregorian is a long-time member). Young players all, they brought impressive musical skills to the program.
The chamber music classic was Johannes Brahms' Piano Quintet in F Minor, Op. 34, a large-scale work that bears many hallmarks of Brahms' compositions. Packed with drama and emotion and tempered by some gorgeous and tranquil moments, this piece could seem to some listeners as falling just a few instruments short of being a full piano concerto.
If this were a vocal piece, you could say that much of work is scored in the alto-baritone range, giving it a richness that adds to the drama. On occasion, however, the music soars into the upper range, especially for piano and the violins: Keefe, the first violin, and Ara Gregorian, second, handled these parts effortlessly without overpowering the inner voices of Requiro and violist Hsin-Yun Huang. The intimacy of the A.J. Fletcher Recital Hall enabled the audience to appreciate some of the more subtle sections, too, including a particularly nice part of the second (Andante, un poco adagio) movement, in which Keefe and Huang carried on a lovely dialog, consisting more of the knowing nods of old friends, rather than constant chatter.
This quintet, of course, contains a most familiar section, the third movement (Scherzo: Allegro), in which the bold and muscular main theme in the strings, offset nicely by Vonsattel's piano, proceeds at a furious pace and comes back around three times. Structurally, this movement might have made for a better finale than the actual movement (Poco sostenuto) that ended the piece and the concert.
The piece that has the making of a classic is the Piano Quintet No. 1 in C Minor by Ernő Dohnányi, the late 19th and early 20th century Hungarian musician perhaps better known for his talent as a pianist than as a composer. This piece was the composer's Opus 1, from his student days, when he was 17 years old. (If his name sounds familiar, he is the grandfather of conductor Christoph von Dohnányi.)
Gregorian programmed this quintet in 2010, and it made quite a favorable impression on the audience at that time, just as it did this time around. One of the chief reasons, perhaps, is the stunningly beautiful third (Adagio) movement, which began with a melancholy song-like section led by pianist Vonsattel and violist Huang. The melody was repeated by violinst Keefe, with nice accompaniment from cellist Requiro.
The opening allegro movement is chock-full of melody, energy, and emotion and contains some beautiful passages. The scherzo movement is quite lively and closes with lovely harmonies. The finale (Allegro animato) opened with a nicely played duet by pianist Vonsattel and cellist Requiro; this statement was repeated by first violinist Gregorian and violist Huang. The theme in a fugue in the finale shifts nicely from cello to viola to second violin to first violin and then to piano while also shifting from classical orderliness to more spirited dance-like rhythms.
Just as in 2010, this quintet proved to be the kind of composition that can easily win converts to chamber music; for those audience members who had not heard it before, it could encourage them to search out a recorded version.
Keefe and Vonsattel were given the opportunity to introduce themselves to the festival audience at the beginning of the program, playing Brahms' brief Sonatensatz, the scherzo from the F.A.E. Sonata, for violin and piano. After starting with its series of vigorous four-note figures, the sonata movement shifted into a more song-like section, not hurried, before returning to a variant of the opening statement. Keefe's double-stopped closing chords were especially lovely.
For an ensemble in which three-fifths of the players had not performed together here before, the blend and the music-making in this opening concert were first-rate from beginning to end. Pianist Vonsattel deserves special mention for the elegance and energy he brought to the music, in a full range of dynamics, and the two new string players, cellist Requiro and violinist Keefe, showed some top-level musical skills. Along with Huang and Gregorian, this quintet of musicians sparkled.
Note: This program will be repeated on September 14 in Raleigh. For details, see the sidebar.