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On January 31, in Meredith College's Carswell Concert Hall, the Arcangelo Piano Quartet (http://www.arcangelopianoquartet.com/) gave a concert benefiting the Raleigh Symphony Orchestra Chamber Players. The artists - Russian pianist Irene Kofman, Polish violinist Izabela Cohen, Chinese violinist and violist Yang Xi, and American cellist Steven Sigurdson - are Florida based, mostly, and the string players are all veterans of the late-lamented Florida Philharmonic Orchestra, whose last chief executive had been the successor in Syracuse, NY, to David Chambless Worters, current CEO of the NCS. Xi currently performs with the RSO and its Chamber Players, and this benefit concert was his idea. (For an excellent profile of Xi, see our colleague Roy C. Dicks' article in the 1/30 issue of the N&O's "What's Up," online at http://newsobserver.com/features/wup/story/3287621p-2935896c.html [inactive 5/04]) The turnout was excellent, and the presenters have good reasons to be pleased.
The generous program was a fascinating mini-survey of "piano" quartets, with more than a few gee-whiz surprises along the way. Things got underway with what the bare-bones (skeletal, indeed...) program listed as "Folia for strings and harpsichord" by Vivaldi. This and other selections were introduced by the artists, which was a big help, since the typical music lover without access to several reference works would otherwise have been hard-pressed to pinpoint the pieces. It was in fact the Trio Sonata in d minor, Op. 1/12 (RV.63), cataloged (in New Grove ) as "Variations on 'La Follia.'" Kofman played Meredith's double-manual harpsichord, made from a kit in 1979; it was surprisingly effective, although there's not much audible difference in manual I and manual II. Trio sonatas tended to be for one or two instruments with continuo. This one is for two violins, played in period performance style, sort of - there was very little vibrato - by Cohen and Xi. One can, I guess, make a case for this being a precursor of the piano quartet of today, but it is a bit of a stretch. The same may be said of the next item on the program, listed as "Divertimento for harpsichord and strings," by Haydn. It turned out to be the work generally known as Haydn's Keyboard Concerto in C, H.XIV:3, which was intended for harpsichord, two violins and continuo, as given on this occasion, but it is listed in New Grove as a divertimento - and as a concertino and a sonate, too! Both opening works were handsomely played, with great enthusiasm and spirit, to the evident delight of the audience.
Mozart's First Piano Quartet, in g minor, K.478, really is a piano quartet, with a viola replacing the second violin heard in the earlier works on this program. It received a fine reading, but Meredith's troubled Yamaha, its lid kept on its short stick, sounded even murkier than usual, and its mid-range continued to display quirky and uneven action. The piece is among the best-known chamber works in this form, and the Arcangelo's performance of it, overall, was on a par with some of the very best readings heard locally.
The second half of the program was devoted to Brahms' Third Piano Quartet, in c minor, Op. 60; it was actually begun in 1855, before the other two. Brahms messed with it, off and on, for 20 years, and cellist Sigurdson explained the likely reasons for the composer's difficulty in completing it - his contorted admiration for Clara Schumann, Robert S's hospitalization and subsequent death, Brahms' identification with the title character of Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther, etc., etc. The music is dark and often troubling, and the remarks reminded us why this is so. The performance glowed from within and would have served as an ideal cap for the concert, but there was such enthusiastic applause that the visitors performed two Chinese pieces, one clearly a folksong and the other resembling some sort of Asian bluegrass. During the course of the program, there were some minor ensemble problems, here and there, and several not-so-minor intonation glitches. These little problems aside, it had nonetheless been quite an evening when the music ended at ten after ten and the reception began.
The Raleigh Symphony and its Chamber Players merit our support. This benefit concert did much to underscore the important roles played in our community by such ensembles and to gird up the Chamber Players' current budget. Xi and Cohen will perform again, with the RSO Chamber Players, on February 28. See our calendar for details.