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Three splendid chamber works for four and five players, separated in time by not quite 100 years, made up the second program in the Four Seasons Chamber Music Festival at East Carolina University, and one could not help notice that the three works seemed well suited for actual rooms, or chambers. Mozart’s Quintet for clarinet and strings in A, K. 581, is a drawing room piece, perhaps a parlor; Mendelssohn’s String Quartet in E-flat, Op. 12, belongs in a bed sitting room (perhaps even a bedroom); Smetana’s String Quartet No. 1 in E-minor (“From My Life”) would be played comfortably in a study.
As he did in the September concert, festival music director Ara Gregorian sat in the violinist’s chair, and he was joined by Hagai Shaham, violin, Nicholas Cords, viola; and Michael Kannen, cello. Chris Grymes of the ECU School of Music was the clarinet soloist in the Mozart quintet.
Gregorian wears his musical emotions, as well as his considerable playing skills, for all to see and hear, and he was in particularly expressive form as lead violinist in the lovely Mendelssohn quartet, dating from the composer’s 20th year in 1829.
The quartet begins with an adagio (adagio non troppo; allegro non tardante), with surprisingly slow and somber phrases, but it builds in intensity as it moves up the scale. It is an elegant opening, played with grace and skill by all four players. The second movement (canzonette; allegretto) starts off playfully, as if a lilting dance, with pairs of instruments carrying contrasting melody lines and pizzicato passages. The fast-moving middle portion sounds as if it could have come from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and the playful theme returns again to close the movement.
Gregorian led the song-like third movement (andante expressivo), and he received wonderful support from the other players. In this movement and the fourth (molto allegro e vivace), parts of the scoring sounded as if the traditional string quartet format, with its usual rich blend of four stringed instruments, were actually a “violin quartet” — with the first violin displayed prominently and frequently, ably supported by the remaining trio of players. The movements included phrases of tension and darkness and phrases of remarkable beauty and light, and each player was sympathetic to both the score and his colleagues. The piece had an overall romantic feel.
Mozart’s clarinet quintet, with its familiar 10-note opening figure, surely must be one of the loveliest pieces in the chamber music repertoire. Written in 1789, the piece exploits the tremendous range of the instrument, and Grymes exercised wonderful control over the ascending and descending demands of the score, as well as providing an effortless, near-liquid sound throughout.
His support was first-rate, too. The clarinet line often was backed by the two violins; at other times by the cello and viola; at other times by the cello. At different points in the first movement (allegro), the strings were both bowed and plucked behind the soloist.
The entire second movement (larghetto) is a close cousin to the famous adagio from Mozart’s clarinet concerto, and it received a stunningly beautiful reading by Grymes and the four string players. The strings provided a soft cushion of sound above which the clarinet line seemed to float. By contrast, the third movement (menuetto) was more of a collaborative effort among all five players, though Grymes sat out part of the opening portion’s second theme. The graceful closing movement (allegretto con variazioni) offered a main theme with five variations, led in alternating fashion by Grymes and the string ensemble.
The program closed with the earthier-sounding first string quartet by Bedrich Smetana, subtitled “From My Life.” Written in 1876, the music reflected on Smetana’s life thus far, from youth through love through the act of creating music.
Violist Corda, a member of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble, led the aggressive opening movement (allegro vivo appassionato) with confidence and skill. His opening theme later moved to first violinist Shaham, then to Kannen on cello, then back to Shaham. The passion that Smetana intended to show through the music came through with clarity in the quartet’s playing.
The dance rhythms in the second movement (allegro moderato a la polka) alternate between a rustic waltz and a more polka-like tempo until the very end when the music almost spins out of control. Kannen’s cello opened the third movement (largo sostenuto) with an air of melancholy, though its theme was pegged to love for the girl whom Smetana later married. Kannen, director of chamber music at the Peabody Conservatory, provided excellent foundations in all three pieces; in this quartet, his playing was especially effective as the upper strings played the delicate melody line of the love song.
The closing vivace movement contains more dance rhythms but opens as mainly a joyful, fast-paced exposition that received a fine reading from all four players. The contrast between the joyful opening and the sudden minor-key passage — signifying the onset of Smetana’s deafness — was jarring, and the musicians played as one in this shift to the somber end of the musical spectrum as the quartet ends.