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One wonders if Johannes Brahms ever smiled. Photographs give hardly a clue. Brahms wrote such elegant — seriously, beautifully elegant — music, as shown by his four symphonies, two serenades, various concerti and chamber works for several combinations of smaller ensembles, that you get the impression that he was a pretty serious chap. Antonín Dvořák, on the other hand, wrote symphonies and chamber works that often prompt a listener to smile, although one can’t tell whether the composer smiled much either. Perhaps he thought of himself only as a serious composer, or a composer of serious music. In the first concert of the Four Seasons Chamber Music Festival’s 11th season, Brahms was seriously, beautifully elegant, and Dvořák was smiling.
Festival artistic director Ara Gregorian brought four accomplished string players to join him on the stage of A.J. Fletcher Recital Hall at East Carolina University for two wonderful string quintets. The players — violinists Jesse Mills and Hagai Shaham, cellist Edward Arron, and violists Xiao-Dong Wang and Gregorian — offered Brahms’ String Quintet No. 2 in G, Op. 111, and Dvořák’s String Quintet No. 2 in E-flat, Op. 97. Both were written near the end of their respective composers’ long and productive years and both pieces showed their respective creators’ mastery of the idiom.
The Dvořák quintet sparkled from beginning to end. Dvořák wrote the piece while he was living among Czech immigrants in Iowa near the end of the 19th century, and he borrowed American themes and ideas (impressions of trains, folk songs, Native American songs) in the composition. The second allegro vivo movement, with a main theme drawn from Native American tradition, had a sprightly rhythm that sometimes resembled a hoedown, for example, with perhaps the faintest reference to “She’ll Be Comin’ ’Round the Mountain.” Even the beautiful third movement, the larghetto, was infused with a lightness that propelled the music forward, never letting the slower and frequently somber passages weigh the section down. This movement alone, consisting of theme and variations played in several different combinations of instruments, was one of the most beautiful pieces heard in at least the last five years of the festival.
The Op. 97 quintet has been called the “American” quintet, just as his Op. 96 string quartet is called the “American” quartet, and some of the melody lines from the quintet immediately recall those in the quartet, especially in the quintet’s first allegro non tanto movement. The different combinations of instruments and scoring for instruments throughout the quintet are interesting. In the opening movement, first violinist Mills and first violist Gregorian were often paired, and in the second movement Gregorian’s lead line came over pizzicato playing by cello, second violin and second viola. Later, Arron’s cello had the lead line over pizzicato playing by the others.
The lively fourth movement, allegro giusto, was led by Mills’ strong lead violin, but all players contributed mightily to the great finish, furiously playing what sounded like hundreds of notes in the space of just a few bars.
The Brahms quintet opened the concert, and the five players provided a fine reading of the work. The opening allegro non troppo movement started with great energy, keyed initially by Arron’s strong cello, and then settled into the loveliest of themes. Shaham’s first violin provided a delicately harmonic counterbalance in higher octaves to the violas and cello, and the violins and violas offered a nice quartet over plucked cello near the end of the movement.
The adagio is a classic example of the more introspective Brahms. Gorgeous harmonies, intense emotion, some singing melody lines and interesting combinations of bowing and plucking were highlights, and the achingly slow tempo in the opening section demanded the listener’s full attention. Wang’s lead viola had a lovely exposed line leading to the somber, pianissimo conclusion. Some drama returned for the third un poco allegretto movement, which also had dance-like moments and nice call-and-response between Gregorian on second viola and Mills on second violin.
The full ensemble got a workout in the final vivace ma non troppo presto movement. Only Gregorian and Arron opened the movement, but great energy and intensity soon picked up among all five players, with the music almost spinning out of control before settling into a more understated Brahmsian elegance. And then the high-spirited energy returned to propel the music to its bright conclusion.
By the way, Brahms probably did smile. The splashy final movement of the quintet certainly indicates joy, at least in the context of composing music. And, if the program notes are any indication, he spent time after 1890 (when the quintet was composed) for “daily saunters to the Red Hedgehog tavern and the quiet company of friends.”