Infrequently Played Elgar Quintet Highlights Four Seasons
by Steve Row
March 28, 2008, Greenville, NC: The “heavy hitter” in the lineup of the fourth Four Seasons Chamber Music Festival concert at East Carolina University was Johannes Brahms’ Piano Quintet in F-minor, Op. 34, a classic piece in the chamber music repertoire. But the real star was a quintet by English composer Sir Edward Elgar. Elgar’s Piano Quintet in A minor, Op. 84, dating from 1919, is a piece to savor, for a variety of reasons. First and foremost is one of the most beautiful slow movements ever presented in the chamber festival series, every bit the equal of the lovely andante of the Brahms quintet, if not even a bit better. The adagio movement is sandwiched between two more energetic, and perhaps darker, movements. The opening moderato: allegro begins with strings in unison, and at times the piano line sounds as if it could have come from Schubert or Beethoven, though the string passages have a more modern sound.
Parts of the first movement are dreamlike, transparent, and received a lovely reading from the players; parts are quite intense, with stark, exposed piano phrases countered by forceful strings. There are also brief, dramatic, even ominous, passages in which the strings play off the piano, and there are glorious portions, too, including a section sounding as if it were from a grand ball, as well as a section with a Spanish influence. Near the end, the cello line is handed to the second violin, then to the first violin, then to the viola before a restatement of the opening theme and a subtle, quiet closing.
The first part of the closing andante: allegro movement features several measures of unison string playing. It also has its darker moments at the outset, briefly, but the main theme initially is positive, even engagingly optimistic. Then the mood changes to one of melancholy, with the upper strings engaging in a slow, minor-key passage before moving to a stronger, major-key climax.
But, oh, that adagio! The movement starts with an almost hymn-like feeling, and all five players share in the sublime nature of the piece. First violinist Ittai Shapira, second violinist Hagai Shaham, violist Ara Gregorian (music director of the festival), cellist Zvi Plesser, and pianist Arnon Erez poured considerable emotion into the playing, and they all played with complete respect for each other’s part.
The stateliness of the adagio’s opening theme is Elgar at his best, combining ascending and descending melody lines, emphasizing treble voices in some places and lower voices in others, and blending the piano line smoothly with the strings so that neither dominated, and the smaller ensemble passages came together beautifully. If any instrument influences the movement, it would be the cello, which adds a melancholy feeling to the overall sound.
The Brahms quintet received a stellar reading, too. Unlike some chamber pieces for four, five or six instruments that include piano, this is not a scaled-down version of a piano concerto. Brahms scored the piece for five equal partners, and Erez, who might have been the busiest player all night, never overplayed or underplayed his part.
In the opening allegro non troppo, passages for duets, trios, quartets and full quintet abound, and the piano line is vintage Brahms, with full, rich scoring in both upper and lower registers. Near the end of the movement is a lovely string quartet passage, minus piano.
Erez’s piano led the song-like opening of the second movement (andante: un poco adagio), and Gregorian played a highly emotional viola line in the early part that was restated an octave higher by Shaham on first violin. A quiet, almost whispering, exchange of themes between piano and strings later was beautiful, as was the soft unison closing.
The scherzo: allegro movement that followed was notable for Plesser’s drumming on the cello strings as a prelude to the famous theme. The theme has a feeling of martial grandeur and forward movement, almost like horsemen galloping.
The fourth movement (finale: allegro non troppo) starts slowly but later unfolds into a dance-like theme led by Erez on piano, Plesser on cello and Gregorian on viola, which moves into a larger-scale dance for all five players, reminiscent of Brahms’ “Hungarian Dances.” The closing is a thrilling buildup of emotion, strength and energy, with a slight pause (almost to enable the players to catch their breath) before tumbling to the end.
The concert began with an allegretto from Shostakovich’s unfinished string quartet, which offered quite a contrast to the elegance of the Elgar and Brahms quintets. After a forceful unison cello and viola opening, the piece works through some dissonances to a rather abrupt end. The music, dating from the early 1960s, never fully engages the listener, and a secondary theme is said to resemble a Russian Orthodox setting for Psalm 140. Such a chant-like theme was difficult to pick out, however.
These musicians will make up the chamber music group touring Israel May 23-28, and these pieces will constitute some of the tour repertoire. Audiences in Israel will be in for quite a treat.