For the final program in the Four Seasons Chamber Music Festival's 16th season, artistic director Ara Gregorian and a new lineup of musicians delivered the loveliest of performances of two works by Robert Schumann and a familiar piano quintet by Antonín Dvořák. And it was an interesting mix: a duo, a quartet, and a quintet.
To open the program, presented in A.J. Fletcher Recital Hall and heard on April 8, long-time Four Seasons participant Colin Carr, cello, was joined by first-time participant Rieko Aizawa, piano, in a splendid performance of Schumann's Adagio and Allegro, Op. 70. The adagio seems to demand an outpouring of emotion by the cellist, and Carr, who consistently delivers the goods in his Four Seasons appearances, poured his emotions into the dramatic scoring. Aizawa's undulating piano supported the cello line quite well. Then, a furious duet of cello and piano propelled the allegro portion, which stayed lively and energetic pretty much until the end. Carr negotiated the startlingly fast bowing portions with great skill and energy.
Gregorian (playing viola) and violinist Jesse Mills joined Carr and Aizawa for Schumann's Piano Quartet in E-flat, Op. 47; the four musicians made terrific music together in this beautiful piece. The ultra-slow opening by the strings creates an almost hymn-like line in the sostenuto assai-allegro ma non troppo first movement, but that is countered by the dominant main part, which builds in drama and intensity; the quartet never lost focus as the dynamics and pace shifted from soft to loud or from slow to fast and back. In the second movement (scherzo: molto vivace), the fast and nervous opening phrases by the cello and piano at first, then joined by violin and viola, emphasized the "vivace" aspect of the music, which continued throughout the surprisingly brief movement. One of Schumann's most beautiful melodies – indeed, one of the best known in the romantic repertoire – comes at the beginning of the andante cantabile third movement, with an exquisite solo cello line, later repeated by the violin. Both Carr and Mills provided beautiful readings, enough to bring the listener close to tears. Overall, the string trio is sumptuous, and the piano-viola repeat of the main melody, with the lightest violin descant, followed by a repeat by the cello, brought a collective sigh of contentment in the audience. The finale, marked vivace, combined different dynamics and pacing, too, and the players' energy and musicianship never flagged as the movement built toward an intense, though brief, fugue and bold finish.
The concert and season ended with the appearance of an old friend – Dvořák's Piano Quintet No. 2 in A, Op. 81. This has become almost a "go-to" selection, a piece that seems to show up during the festival season every two or three years or so, and although one might remember parts of at least two sections, one still is pleased by the overall beauty and grace of the piece. Certainly Aizawa's piano playing was a notable highlight, especially her trills at the start of the dumka second movement (which might have prompted a much later composer to pen the popular song "Nature Boy" in the late 1940s). The combination of Gregorian's plucked viola and Carr's plucked cello over the two violins – ECU faculty violinist Hye-Jin Kim rounded out the string ensemble for this work – was especially nice; this movement is every bit as lovely as the Schumann andante cantabile heard earlier. The quintet's opening movement, allegro ma non tanto, the main melody of which some say recalls the spiritual tune "Shall We Gather By the River," started in a deceptively somber mood, led by Carr's cello and followed by Mills' first violin, but finished with a furious close. The third and fourth movements are bright and cheery, and all five musicians showed terrific energy in bringing them to life. The furiant fairly bounces along, with some particularly fine ensemble playing in the strings, and the fourth gives each player a chance to step out. Following an intense fugue, a brief (and unexpected) introspective mood in the few bars before the exciting finish serve as a nice musical contrast, without being overplayed by any in the ensemble.
One cannot say whether this 2016 ensemble (with two husband-wife teams of Gregorian and Kim and Mills and Aizawa) was any better than previous Four Seasons ensembles that also played the Dvořák quintet, but such comparisons are immaterial. This particular group, playing with great skill and passion, provided a splendid reading of works by Schumann and Dvořák and brought the 16th Chamber Music Festival to a wonderful conclusion.
Note: The program was repeated in Raleigh on April 9.