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For the opening concert of the 2009 part of the Four Seasons Chamber Music Festival, festival director Ara Gregorian tried something new — a string trio and a piano duet — and the results were nothing short of splendid. In fact, the program of duet, trio and quartet was extraordinary from first note to last.
Gregorian, who again played violin, brought old and new colleagues with him into A.J. Fletcher Recital Hall on the East Carolina University campus: pianist Adam Neiman, who has played with many top symphony orchestras; pianist Keiko Sekino, assistant professor of piano at ECU; violist Maria Lambros, a member of the Peabody Conservatory chamber music faculty; and cellist Ani Aznavoorian, now a member of the University of Illinois music faculty.
The program highlight was Rachmaninoff’s Suite No. 2 for two pianos, Op. 17. This is a gigantic piece, one that contains an echo of the second piano concerto here (they both were written in the same year, 1900), a hint of the Prelude in C-sharp minor there, and both Neiman and Ms. Sekino were completely up to the physical and musical demands of the score. The composition puts neither performer in a supporting role for more than a few bars, and dominant statements move seamlessly from one player to the other (and sometimes back again).
At times, the music required both performers to play as if they were one big four-handed pianist; at other times, the music required more individual attention and less density. The opening "Alla marcia" starts with emphatic chords, and then moves into a softer melodic interlude before returning to the same dense chords of the beginning. The second movement, "Valse: presto," whirls about like a hummingbird at the beginning and also includes two beautifully grand melodic passages (one for each player).
The third movement, "Romance: andantino," offers both players a chance to carry the main thematic line as well as play a more supporting role. Neiman began the movement, while Ms. Sekino played light arpeggios in the upper register, for example, but then the composer reverses the roles, with Ms. Sekino taking the main theme at the upper end of the keyboard, and Neiman playing arpeggios on the lower end. The fourth movement, "Tarantella: presto," hinted at Rachmaninoff’s use of a more modern musical idiom, with a little jazzy syncopation between the two players. So rhythmic was the final part of this movement that Neiman was bouncing along, obviously enjoying himself.
One couldn’t find much opportunity for subtlety or pianissimo in the piece, though the first movement did contain some softer phrases that recalled the melodic portions of the second piano concerto, for example. The suite was more of an example of Rachmaninoff at his most muscular, without sacrificing his gift for melody and emotion. And Neiman and Ms. Sekino gave a terrific performance.
The concert opened with a delightfully airy work by Beethoven, the String Trio in C-minor, Op. 9, No. 3. Gregorian, Ms. Lambros and Ms. Aznavoorian offered a spirited and skilled reading of the piece, written earlier in Beethoven’s career and reflecting the classical elegance of an earlier era.
The trio contains song-like passages, some dance-like material and several opportunities for wonderful interplay among performers. Ms. Lambros often had leading roles, and her viola and Ms. Aznavoorian’s cello gave a burnished richness of sound to the entire piece. The second movement, "Adagio con espressione," was especially lovely, with a nice violin run over the viola and cello at one point, a beautiful violin-viola duet at another point, and steady support by the cello throughout. For the first three movements, the performers generally played as equals; for the "Finale: presto" movement, Gregorian had the dominant role.
The performers skillfully handled the piece’s wide range of dynamics. The somber opening calls for all three players to move from forte to piano and back often, and often in unison, while other sections give the players a chance to exchange leads and echo each other’s lines.
A more modern composition, Faure’s Piano Quartet No. 2 in G-minor, Op. 45, closed the program, and the three string players, joined by Neiman, gave a splendid account of this multi-textured work. Some decidedly modern scoring (the stormy unison string opening, for instance) was balanced nicely by beautiful melodic sections for which Faure is so well known (the lovely violin line augmented by viola-cello scoring, also in the first movement).
The second "Scherzo: allegro molto" movement presented the only problem of the evening — more one of balance than anything else. Neiman provided a whirling arpeggio line over pizzicato strings, but the strings could barely be heard. The playing was fine; the strings were hard to hear, however, at least from the back of the hall.
Ms. Lambros played a key role in the third "Adagio non troppo" movement. For part of the movement, Neiman’s piano line conveyed a back-and-forth restlessness against the upper register of the viola; at other times, she played with a dark-hued, somber tone that balanced against a lighter piano part, one that had the impression of a Debussy line. The surging "Allegro molto" that closed the piece balanced the players nicely off each other, with some forceful unison sections for strings and turbulent keyboard lines that moved the music toward a forceful conclusion.