If you divide the 19th century into three parts, you can find many examples of composers who wrote gorgeous, glorious, stunningly beautiful melodies, pieces of music constructed more with forward drive than repetition. In the first third of the century, you might pick something by Schubert, in the middle third, something by Schumann, and in the final third, perhaps something by Fauré.
These happen to be the three composers Ara Gregorian, artistic director of the Four Seasons Chamber Music Festival, chose for the “Timeless Classics” concert at A.J. Fletcher Recital Hall on the East Carolina University campus. Masters of melody all, and in popular music terms, we might call these gents “tunesmiths.”
Gregorian, again sitting in the violinist’s chair instead of the violist’s chair, was joined by colleagues relatively new to the festival: pianist Shai Wosner, an accomplished soloist and chamber music performer from New York, and cellist James Wilson, artistic director of the Chamber Music Society of Central Virginia in Richmond and former member of the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra (taking the place of previously announced Zvi Plesser). Violist Hsin-Yun Huang, who is on the Juilliard School and Mannes College faculties, last played in the festival in April a year ago. Together, they poured their considerable skills and emotions into an evening of real music-making.
The program began with a wonderful reading of Schubert’s one-movement Nocturne in E-flat, D.899 (Op. 148), an adagio that might have been intended to be part of a full piano trio, with a slow, sensual beginning, highlighted by plucked strings behind the often-cascading piano line and nice harmony in the violin and cello. The work shifts into a bold, emphatic, almost martial-sounding theme that features rapid piano arpeggios, then shifts back to the slower opening statement. The piece concludes by gradually building in emotional intensity, with Wosner executing lovely tremolos at the upper end of the keyboard to end phrases.
Closing the program was Fauré’s Piano Quartet No. 1 in C-minor, Op. 15, dating from 1880 and 1884, a piece that carries the composer’s lovely "signature" melodies while also looking ever-so-slightly ahead to more “modern” sounds of Debussy or Ravel.
The opening “allegro molto moderato” movement includes solo statements from the violin to the viola to the cello played in succession, all backed by a firm piano line, with the piano displayed prominently over pizzicato strings. The second movement, a “scherzo: allegro vivo,” skips merrily along to a joyous conclusion — and then it repeats. Wosner’s piano was prominent throughout this movement, acting as a sort of glue that kept all parts together. At times, the melody line briefly recalled “Golliwog’s Cakewalk.”
Wilson and Wosner had the main opening statement in the slow “adagio” movement, joined by Gregorian and Huang. This was one of the emotional highlights of the evening, especially when the three stringed instruments played almost as one, with a lovely piano line behind, and when they formed slow chords behind the main statement in the piano.
The final “allegro molto” movement, which seems more free-flowing than many traditional 19th century trios or quartets, opens with a restless piano line, surging ahead then falling back. Each string player is given a chance for a brief solo, and the ensemble sound moves from parts to unison and back to parts, often in various combinations of one solo stringed instrument scored against the other two. The movement surges gently, both opening out fully and contracting into a more intimate sound, until the end, when it builds momentum toward an exhilarating close.
The middle work was Schumann’s Piano Quartet in E-flat major, Op. 47, and it seems that Gregorian and his colleagues, whoever they are, have a special affinity for Schumann. The piece is lovely, of course, but Schumann seems to receive a special luster at a Four Seasons concert. As good as the first and third works were, this selection was the star.
Despite the somber, almost hymn-like opening, the first theme in the sostenuto assai - allegro ma non troppo movement is quite lively, and one could imagine the scoring being just as effective for piano and orchestra (perhaps a good companion to Schumann’s popular concerto) as for piano quartet. The second movement, scherzo: molto vivace, starts as a bundle of nervous energy in both Wilson’s cello and Wosner’s piano before settling down. Huang had a prominent voice throughout this movement.
So well played was the third andante cantabile movement, a slow waltz with its hauntingly familiar cello theme, that it almost brought tears. Gregorian played the first recap of the theme beautifully, an octave higher, with nice support from Huang, who later added her own reading of the theme. Wilson provided an interesting ending, picking up a second cello, retuned for the occasion, to play the lengthy low note sustained underneath the other players, instead of pausing to retune his primary instrument. The brisk finale (vivace), which opens with a fugue-like passage, is a crowd-pleaser, encompassing Schumann’s gift for melody and drama, with several buildups rising to an exciting climax.
Both Gregorian and Huang played with expressively warm tone throughout the evening, and she showed liveliness in her playing that resembled Gregorian at his most animated. Wilson’s cello playing was impeccable, and Wosner neither disappeared nor dominated, adding just the right balance as either leader or accompanist. The players complemented each other well; again, music-making of the highest order.