The 14th season of the Four Seasons Chamber Music Festival ended with a program both challenging and rewarding – for performers and audience alike. Two piano quintets were the features, but two Mozart modifications of organ pieces by Bach were quite interesting appetizers before the more substantial compositions.

The Mozart “transcriptions” were Preludes and Fugues Nos. 1 in D-minor and 3 in F for string trio, one based on Bach’s S.853 and one based on S.882. (Among Mozart compositions, they are listed as K. 404a.) The program notes pointed out that Mozart was studying Bach’s music in 1782 when asked to compose a string trio; he fulfilled the request by reworking organ music of Bach into trios. He composed his own preludes and attached them to fugues by Bach (including one by W. F. Bach) that he rescored for strings. Festival artistic director Ara Gregorian, viola, and Elina Vähälä, violin, engaged in nice musical conversation at the beginning of the first, joined by cellist Zvi Plesser, and Gregorian and Plesser provided an elegant duet to begin a second theme. The other prelude and fugue opened the second half of the program, and though shorter, this piece also seemed more melodic and focused. Violinist Soovin Kim‘s tone was especially warm in the second prelude. The fugue in both pieces proceeds from viola to violin to cello, and the cello line takes the place of pedal scoring, while the violin and viola take keyboard parts.

The big challenge of the evening, and perhaps the entire season, was Ernest Bloch’s Piano Quintet No. 1, composed in 1923. This is not an easy piece to warm up to, despite the top-rate playing by Gregorian, Kim, Vähälä, Plesser and pianist Thomas Sauer. Not much in the way of traditional melody or harmony can be found here, although the scoring is by no means dissonant. The piece is full of drama and tension, requiring considerable energy on the part of the performers. Sauer, in particular, had quite a workout at the keyboard, from the stormy opening agitato (aptly named) movement through the third allegro energico (also aptly named) movement.

Bloch included some interesting scoring techniques in the quintet, perhaps most notably some quarter-tones for strings in the first movement, in which violist Gregorian, first violinist Kim and cellist Plesser “bent” the notes at various times to slightly under pitch. In the second andante mistico movement, Sauer provided a steady, pulsing accompaniment, and at one point Kim and Gregorian played a ghostly sound behind the more prominent musical phrases by second violinist Vähälä and Plesser. In the third movement, Sauer again provided a rumbling undertone to the more prominent passages for strings. One could hear a bit of Rite of Spring-like musical line in this movement, although the sense of urgency tones down quite a bit as it moves toward a conclusion. The ending of the piece, by the way, was beautiful and beautifully played.

The program and season ended with a favorite composition, Dvořák‘s Piano Quintet No. 2 in A, Op. 81, a piece with not one, but two, movements that could stand alone as self-contained concert showcases. These two movements also have melody lines that instantly recall (1) a favorite old-time hymn and (2) a popular song from the 1940s. Regular festival attendees have heard portions of this piece in earlier Next Generation concerts, and the full quintet was played as recently as 2011.

The opening allegro, ma non tanto, movement is a large-scale piece in which the musicians come together almost as a small chamber orchestra with piano soloist, offering both subtle and high-energy playing, drama and excitement, and moments of reflective beauty. The quintet’s first recognizable music comes at the very outset of the first movement, with pianist Sauer and cellist Plesser playing a melody line recalling “Shall We Gather at the River,” which returns at least twice in a line by Vähälä on solo violin, again by cello and piano, and in a short variation by the piano. The second dumka: andante con moto movement opens with the second prominent melody, one that recalls the popular 1940s song, “Nature Boy,” played initially in the upper register of the keyboard. This, too, is a large-scale movement, one that projects an air of melancholy, especially in the repeated piano phrases and quiet strings. The tone lightens a bit in a violin duet played nicely by Kim and Vähälä over plucked cello and viola, but only briefly, and Gregorian later echoed the opening theme on viola. He and Sauer engaged in a lovely duet near the end of the movement, among the most beautiful of all of Dvořák‘s chamber works.

The third scherzo: molto vivace movement begins with a lively three-quarter-time dance, before shifting to a more languid second theme and then returning to the opening motif. The players still had some energy in the tank for this brief movement and for the broader finale: allegro movement, which is played boldly and mainly with a smile. This is a lively section, too, although an interesting contrast is provided between a brisk fugue and a slower (and very brief) hymn-like progression of chords as the movement draws to a close.

In a fairly demanding program, the musical blend among the performers was splendid throughout, with seamless playing by the two violins, viola, and cello, and excellent supporting, solo, and lead passages by Sauer, at the piano.

This program will be repeated on April 13 at St. Mary’s School in Raleigh. For details, see the sidebar.