If the concluding concert of the fifth season of the Four Seasons Chamber Music Festival, held in ECU's A.J. Fletcher Recital Hall on April 23, did not have a "dazzling finish" like last year's finale, it was certainly filled with harmony and promised much for the future. Founder and violinist Ara Gregorian was joined by 1993 Naumberg prize-winning violinist Yehonatan Berick, violist Maria Lambros, a veteran member of both the Ridge and the Meliora String Quartets, and cellist Amit Peled (who gave a masterclass and played at UNCG's celebration of Bernard Greenhouse's 90th birthday). Berick played first violin in works by Dvorák and Ravel and Gregorian took the lead in music by Brahms. Contrasting Romantic works sandwiched an impressionistic classic.
Preceding the performance of Dvorák's glowing Bagatelles, Op. 47, Gregorian recounted the difficulties they had trying to find a reliable harmonium that would hold its tuning. They tried the composer's alternate version for piano but wanted to recreate the original sound. ECU faculty pianist Paul Tardiff achieved this through sensitive use of an electronic keyboard synthesizer. The resulting sound reminded me of old Victorian player organs that were common in late 19th- and early 20th-century homes. The Bagatelles were written around the same time as the composer's Slavonic Dances, and the moods of the five short movements are rather like the gentler dances. A sweet melodic theme, the Bohemian folk song "Hrály duly u pobudy" ("The Bagpiping at Pobuda"), first played by a pair of violins, is treated cyclically. The first movement is straightforward while the second is a minuet, resembling a Czech dance (the Sousedská), where a simple melody is added above the original motive. The harmonium is prominent in the third movement, where it imitates the sound of bagpipes. The fourth movement is slow and in the form of a canon. In the last movement, a polka, the original theme returns, and musical materials from the other movements are woven into the texture. The violinists matched each other's tone when they played together, and cellist Peled revealed a deep, rich, and dark tone that projected easily at all dynamic levels. This joyous work ought to be played more often. I have heard it only one other time within the last two decades and on that occasion was underwhelmed by an anemic albeit real harmonium. Tardiff was much more impressive with the synthesizer. This is a rare instance in which I approve of the use of electronic devices in music.
I was startled by Gregorian's comments drawing attention to the "unusual" sounds to be heard in the String Quartet in F by Maurice Ravel. Triangle music lovers do not realize how lucky they are to have the long-established Raleigh Chamber Music Guild series and the Chamber Arts Society and the Ciompi Quartet at Duke. Over the past three decades I doubt any season has gone by without at least one performance of the Ravel. To me, it has long been a beloved warhorse, always warmly welcomed. The Four Seasons foursome played with flawless ensemble despite their having rehearsed the program only since the previous Tuesday. They brought a sense of freshness that can sometimes elude seasoned quartets who may have played the piece too much. The first movement was given a very Apollonian interpretation. The second movement, with its exciting pizzicatos, was taken at a slower tempo than usual, but it worked. Time seemed suspended in the slow movement but it did not drag or sprawl. These individual touches heightened the excitement of the fast finale.
As in the case of his concertos and symphonies, Brahms said he "felt [Beethoven's] footsteps constantly behind me" when composing his string quartets. He began work on the Quartet in C Minor, Op. 51/1, in the early 1850s but did not submit it for publication until 1873, after many private readings by musician friends and extensive re-workings. More than once during the fine standard performance led by Gregorian, I could sense the sound world we call "Late Beethoven" haunting the piece. In contrast to their approach to the light-hearted and singing Romanticism in the Dvorák that opened the concert, the Four Seasons players adjusted their style, digging in with their bows to produce what Donald Tovey called the composer's "massive harmony and polyphony." The playing reflected such assurance and tight ensemble that it was hard to believe they had not lived with the work for a long time.
After intermission, Gregorian thanked all the in-kind donors and expressed deep gratitude to the anonymous donor who guaranteed this series, which has made such a vital contribution to the cultural vitality of the Down-East region. During each residency, the musicians' rehearsals are open to all, and there are masterclasses for ECU and public-school music students and concerts in elementary schools. Gregorian said that next year's concert dates had been set but not their programs or artists. Plans are underway to expand the series further afield, and on President's Day 2006 the Four Seasons Chamber Music Festival will make its debut in Carnegie's newest performance space, Zankel Hall.