The 10th anniversary season of the Four Seasons Chamber Music Festival at East Carolina University came to a close with two substantial chamber music pieces, Brahms’ String Sextet in G, Op. 36, and Tchaikovsky’s String Sextet in D-minor, Op. 70. The program was exceedingly well played, but it was almost too much of a good thing.
Festival artistic director Ara Gregorian assembled a top-rate quintet of players to join him, and they certainly delivered the goods. Joining Gregorian on violin was late substitute Axel Strauss, a young German who is professor of violin at San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Violists were Hsin-Yun Huang from The Juilliard School faculty and Maria Lambros from the Peabody Conservatory faculty, and cellists were Ani Aznavoorian, principal cellist of Camerata Pacifica, and Nina Lee, a member of the Brentano String Quartet who teaches at Princeton and Columbia. They threw themselves into the two pieces with considerable energy, and they seemed to enjoy themselves thoroughly.
The music was wonderful, as could be expected considering the composers, but with more of a sense of muscularity than a sense of delicacy. These are heavy-duty chamber music pieces, not without their moments of lightness and softness, but they are several steps beyond typical drawing room fare.
The Brahms sextet (his second, from 1865) has been interpreted as a love song to Agathe von Siebold, and there were moments of exquisitely emotional and heartfelt composition. The scoring treats the three pairs of instruments as separate voices throughout: one cello is bowed while the other is plucked, for example, and one viola has a singing line while the other is bowed with a gently rocking motion. But there also are lovely harmonies both in pairs of the same instrument and in different instruments.
In the second scherzo: allegro non troppo movement, Gregorian and Strauss played a lovely lead in harmony, with Huang providing a nice third voice, before the ensemble moved into a high-energy dance. And in the elegant adagio movement, Strauss, Gregorian and Lambros joined forces, augmented first by one cello then by the second. The final poco allegro movement had a nice fugue that engaged all the players, played in between another elegant Brahms melody line.
The Tchaikovsky sextet, subtitled “Souvenir de Florence,” (from 1890) was filled with melody from start to finish, with some different dance rhythms, including a signature waltz, offering nice variety, too. After the robust opening of the allegro con spirito movement by the entire group, Strauss, who was in the first violinist’s chair, played a lovely solo line accompanied by the other five players. The score contains several instances of intimate dialog between players, and Aznavoorian and Lee had a nice cello duet in the first movement, as did Strauss and Huang. This movement also contained an interesting progression of musical “handoffs,” with the violinists and violists each taking one note of the line in quick succession, followed by four quick chord progressions played separately.
The second adagio cantabile e con moto movement is a wonderful Tchaikovsky melody, led grandly by Strauss and Huang, wringing much out of the score as the mood shifts from drama to pure emotion. And then comes a stunning repeat of the opening theme by Aznavoorian on the cello, played over softly plucked violas. The spirited final allegro vivace, with its recognizable melody, brought the evening to a rousing close.
But for the first time since starting to attend the concerts in fall 2006, I felt almost — but not quite — overwhelmed by the music, sort of like having entrees of duck a l’orange and filet mignon at the same meal. This is one instance when the pieces selected for one program might better have been separated into two different programs. A lighter string sextet, if such a thing exists, might have served as a better balance for either of these pieces (would a sextet by Reger, Gliere, Spohr or Boccherini be a good match, perhaps?) Perhaps the Brahms sextet to open a season, and the Tchaikovsky sextet to end the season.
These are grand pieces of chamber music, compositions of considerable beauty, to be sure, but when performed on the same program they offer highly charged playing, often forte, that comes close to a sensory overload. So much energy was expended that the players had to re-tune their instruments after each movement, and the intimacy of the small Fletcher Recital Hall, which suits the Four Seasons chamber music programming so well, was barely able to contain the sound.