Chamber Music Review



Two Piano Quintets Featured at Four Seasons Chamber Music Festival

January 11, 2007 - Greenville, NC:


In a few short years, the Four Seasons Chamber Music Festival, founded by Ara Gregorian, has become so popular with "down east" audiences that each program has to be repeated. Each concert and residency includes extensive local outreach featuring master classes for university music students and special programs in the public schools. Concerts are held in the A.J. Fletcher Recital Hall of East Carolina University; out-of-town repeats were added last year. This program was also given on January 13 in Watson Hall at the North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem.

Two piano quintets that are cornerstones of the chamber music repertory of the 19th and 20th centuries were the focus of this series of concerts. The able pianist was Robert McDonald, a former NCSA faculty member, currently on the faculty of the Juilliard School. He is a frequent accompanist to such artists as Midori and a regular participant in many of the best-known chamber music groups. His Steinway's lid was fully raised, but he kept perfect balance with his four string colleagues at all times. The violinists took the first chair in turn. Joseph Genualdi currently teaches violin and chamber music at the NCSA and was a founding member of the Muir String Quartet. He led a stunning performance of Dmitri Shostakovich's Piano Quintet in G Minor, Op. 57. Soovin Kim, an active concerto soloist who also teaches at Yale University and the Temple University Preparatory department, led the red-blooded performance of Antonin Dvorák's Piano Quintet in A, Op. 81. Michael Kannen spun dark-hued cello tones from his cello. He is a founding member of the Brentano String Quartet and currently a member of the Apollo Trio. For once, ECU-based Ara Gregorian did not alternate between violin and viola. He expertly recreated the austere timbre apt for Shostakovich and the warm and effusive sound for Dvorák.

Before playing the Shostakovich, Gregorian briefly alluded to the often hidden or multi-levels of meaning so characteristic of the Soviet composer's public works. Against all expectations, the Piano Quintet won the Stalin Prize in 1940, the year of its composition and premiere. Under the all-pervasive Stalinist police state, fear of betrayal, spying, and shear random brutality for terror's sake made hidden subtexts essential. The Piano Quintet is in five movements. The solemn slow prelude gives way to a winning lighter-textured fast section before a short return of the opening mood. Following without pause, a Bach-like fugue subject has a Russian folksong quality. It's arch shape opens up over the course of a seamless singing line. The stormy scherzo has a two-phrase piano tune set against insistent strings. Much of the mood is cocky and sassy, and some jarring dissonances are featured. The intermezzo exploits the wide palette of instrumental colors as a broad melody is set against what Melvin Berger, in Guide to Chamber Music, calls "a crisp, 'walking' staccato line." The finale follows without pause. Its straightforward structure features a rhythm that hovers "between (a) dance and (a) march." Shostakovich seals the movement's character by quoting a "tune traditionally played at the entrance of the clowns in the Russian circus."

The five Four Seasons Festival musicians gave a passionate and deeply committed performance of the Shostakovich. String intonation was outstanding, not least from first violinist Genualdi, whose part often lies stratospherically high. The ensemble was precise and tight, revealing details I had often missed in many performances by others. The composer's special, ironical sound world was ideally recreated. McDonald's playing of the powerful keyboard part was outstanding.

The buoyant "bonhomie" of Dvorák's Piano Quintet was the perfect foil for the — by turns — austere and sardonic Russian piece. Long an audience favorite, its four movements are packed with long, soaring melodies and lively Czech dance rhythms: the second movement is a dumka, and the third movement, a scherzo, is a furiant. Cellist Kannen played the melody that opens the work gorgeously. All the artists phrased wonderfully with just the right approach to slowing down or speeding up a line. Everything was played with great warmth and "heart!"

Edited, corrected 1/16/07.