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Arguably the two greatest works composed for the piano quintet are the Quintet in E-flat, Op. 44, by Robert Schumann, and the Quintet in F Minor, Op. 34, by his protégé, Johannes Brahms. It is rare to hear either one on a regular chamber music series. To hear both on the same program is a once-in-a-lifetime treat. All praise to Ara Gregorian, Artistic Director of the ECU School of Music's Four Seasons Chamber Music Festival, for creative programming that allowed music lovers the opportunity to make close comparisons between two works that are fraught with contrasts yet which share a teacher-pupil influence. The performances took place in the A. J. Fletcher Recital Hall on February 4.
Joining violinist Gregorian were guest violinist Nicholas Kitchen, violist Dov Scheindlin, cellist Zvi Plesser, and pianist Thomas Sauer. Kitchen, originally from Durham, led the Schumann from the first chair while Gregorian led the Brahms. The finely-tuned Steinway grand piano was played with its lid fully raised, and pianist Sauer in effect gave a masterclass on how to adjust the keyboard dynamics to perfectly balance with strings, whether in the softest passages or in the emotion-charged louder ones. Breaking with the printed program order, the works were played in chronological order. The authorship of the excellent program notes was shared between two Class of '06 students, Carolyn Dunn for the Schumann, and A. Allen Amos II for the Brahms.
Schumann composed his Piano Quintet in a two-week period in September 1842. Some critics have faulted him for an overly prominent piano part, but Sauer's sensitive musicianship quickly gave the lie to that charge. The reason this work is beloved by violists was soon apparent as Scheindlin's lustrous-toned viola paired with Plesser's deeply sonorous cello. Schumann writes extensively for the lower and middle range of the viola, and Scheindler's instrument, made in 1975 by Francesco Bissolotti of Cremona, belied its youth with the depth of its sonority. All five voices were clear throughout the performance. Kitchen's and Gregorian's closely-matched phrasing and ensemble were worthy of a permanent ensemble, not one with just a few days' rehearsal. The two middle movements were given exceptional interpretations. What a meltingly sweet melody was sung by the violins in the second movement, while avoiding any trace of cloying sentimentality! And the musicians kept the lines clear in the following darker and more-thickly-scored episode, too. Most beneficial was the choice of tempos that gave the music room to breathe and to allow the gorgeous melodies to expand naturally. Even the wildest drive at the end of the third movement was kept clear.
Brahms repudiated the original version of Opus 34, a string quintet, publishing it first as a sonata for two pianos and finally as a piano quintet, in 1865. In contrast to the sunny and lighthearted sound-world of the Schumann, the players dug in to bring out the richer and darker tone that characterizes Brahms' style. Ensemble was tight with complete unity of phrasing. Compared to the Schumann, much of the scoring for the viola stayed within its higher range. The warm and mellow tone of Plesser's cello was a constant delight, as were the looks of pleasure on the musicians' faces during the give and take of the performance. The third movement was outstanding for the degree of clarity maintained while playing at a fast tempo, despite the density and intensity of the scoring.
This concert was outstanding in every way and was well worth driving halfway across the state to hear. Both quintets ought to be played on a double bills more often.