Two large-scale piano quartets from the late 19th century opened the new season of the Four Seasons Chamber Music Festival at East Carolina University, and the contrasts between the two were evident from the beginning through the end of this most satisfying of concerts. The second Piano Quartet of Gabriel Fauré, Op. 45, and the first Piano Quartet of Johannes Brahms, Op. 25, are both in the key of G minor, but that is one of the few similarities between the two.
The lineup for the opening concert in the 16th season brought together performers who have been frequent guests at the festival: pianist Thomas Sauer of the Mannes College of Music, violist Xiao-Dong Wang of the Concertante chamber music ensemble, and cellist Edward Arron of New York University. Violinist and festival artistic director Ara Gregorian of ECU rounded out the quartet.
Fauré is a composer who too often is considered a one-hit wonder (his gorgeous Requiem), but then there are Pélleas et Mélisande and "Pavane" to consider, for example, and so many of his works are highly melodic, with some absolutely shimmering gems of elegant, frequently intimate, composition. This quartet is no exception.
The piece opens with an emphatic piano line under unison strings before moving into more spacious instrumentation. The players imbued the Allegro molto moderato movement with a sense of urgency, a surging sound, while also delivering lovely quieter moments. Especially nice were Gregorian's, Wang's and Arron's occasional exposed lines, while Sauer's piano was an equal partner throughout, and not just background instrumentation.
In the second movement, marked Scherzo, allegro molto, Sauer played up and down the keyboard with considerable energy, and the string players often went from pizzicato passages to firmly bowed scoring. By contrast, the Adagio non troppo third movement was more wistful and featured both fine ensemble playing and lovely solo lines, notably from Arron's cello near the end.
The Allegro molto fourth movement returns to the forcefulness of the opening of the first movement and offered nice contrasts between Gregorian's violin and the duet of Wang and Arron, as well as Gregorian and Wang against Arron's plucked cello. The movement builds in intensity, with both unison and octave scoring, and the players finished in grand style.
The Brahms quartet, written early in his composing career, nicely contrasts delicacy with energy and often resembles more of a small-scale orchestral composition than Fauré's quartet. But many of the high points of Fauré's work are evident in Brahms' quartet – a piano part that is in full partnership with the string players, strong unison and octave playing, gradual intensification in the scoring, and an unerring sense of musicality and melody. The four players brought their considerable musical talents to bear on this grand piece, from start to finish.
The Rondo alla zingarese: presto that brought this quartet to a close was the highlight of the entire program, a glorious dance-like movement incorporating Hungarian themes in a swirling abundance of sound. One almost expected to see some smoke rising from the instruments. Wang and Arron in particular expended considerable energy throughout the movement, and Arron's rapid cello plus Wang's and Gregorian's pizzicato playing, coupled with Sauer's dazzling keyboard work, especially in the opening moments, were excellent. The furious closing, shortly after long descending and ascending runs by Sauer, brought the near-capacity audience at Fletcher Recital Hall to its feet immediately, with loud cheers.
Getting to the exciting close, the inner movements – the Intermezzo: allegro and the Andante con moto – contain their own special moments, and the four performers delivered the goods. The second movement skips lightly here and there, as violin and viola alternate lines with the piano, all played over rapid, pulsing bowing by the cello. At other times, the movement contains noticeable shifts in mood toward drama and tension. The Andante con moto third movement starts with a lovely song-like passage but shifts into a martial sounding, almost heroic, theme, led mainly by Sauer playing over soft strings. The opening theme returns briefly before the players move toward a grand closing.
The 16th season of the festival has been expanded to three performances per program, with the third concert scheduled at venues in the Triangle. The Triangle certainly has no shortage of fine music-listening opportunities, but chamber music devotees in that area would be advised to sit in on Gregorian's outstanding programs in November, February and April, as well as the Next Generation program in January, to see first-hand what those of us in Greenville have been enjoying for the past 15 years.
As noted, this program was repeated at St. Mary's School in Raleigh on September 19.