How interesting the addition of a viola to a string quartet can be! Ara Gregorian, artistic director of the Four Seasons Chamber Music Festival at East Carolina University, chose two gorgeous string quintets to open the festival’s 12th season. Both came from the 19th century, but each showed a slightly different approach to composition for two violins, two violas and a cello. Johannes Brahms’ String Quintet No. 1 in F, Op. 88, seemed to shorten the distance between his chamber music and full-bodied orchestral composition, while Felix Mendelssohn’s String Quintet No. 2 in B-flat, Op. 87, often resembled a “violin quintet” — a mini-violin concerto in the form of a chamber piece, in which the extra viola gave weight to scoring in the lower registers.

Playing before an almost-full house at A.J. Fletcher Recital Hall, Gregorian and friends gave a warm, polished and highly musical reading of both works. For the Brahms quintet (1882-83), Gregorian sat in the first violist’s chair, with Jesse Mills playing first violin, Hagai Shaham playing second violin, Melissa Reardon playing second viola and Edward Arron playing cello.  While the scoring and rich harmonies sounded much like Brahms, some melodies had a lightness that recalls Dvořák, even a phrase or two that recalls Borodin.

The first “allegro non troppo ma con brio” movement has an energetic opening, repeated later in higher register, and builds in intensity toward a conclusion that is not unlike a grand ending for a Brahms symphony, except that it is not quite the ending. The eloquent main theme, complete with its intricacy and delicacy, returns and floats up toward Mills’ lovely solo line at the uppermost part of the scale, before a bright and crisp closing. The second movement, which mixes fast and slow rhythms and bright and somber scoring, featured especially nice playing by cellist Arron, both in exposed lines and in dialog with Gregorian. Mills helped bring this movement to a close, too, with a sustained solo violin line.

The final “allegro energico: presto” movement also starts with considerable energy, perhaps most closely resembling a large-scale Brahms work, but it, too, has a nice contrast between full-throttle and more subdued, restrained playing. The emphasis is on high energy for the most part, however, and the players gave their all through the final chord. The development of parts for the players was interesting, in almost a layered approach, as Gregorian had a solo line, to be joined by Shaham on second violin, then by Mills, then by Reardon, all the while supported by Arron’s cello. 

Mendelssohn’s quintet is often dominated by the first violin, in almost the same way as a solo instrument in a concerto, and Shaham handled the role splendidly. This quintet (1845) is filled with drama and tension, delicacy and strength, and soaring melody, and it displays Mendelssohn at the height of his compositional prowess. The piece starts at quite a fast gallop in the first “allegro vivace” movement, while the second “andante scherzando’ movement has a lilting rhythm, almost like a minuet, but its initial minor key adds darkness to the opening. This movement has perhaps the richest full ensemble sound of all, and the five players offered a wonderful sound.

The third “adagio e lento” section is filled with melancholy, especially in the dramatic, almost funereal, opening statement. Arron’s cello was especially lovely near the end of this movement, and as the section came to a conclusion, Shaham had a fine singing solo line that ascended over tremolo and then gently bowed strings.

The final “allegro molto vivace” opens with a trio of emphatic chords and unfolds into a lively movement that not only featured fine ensemble playing, but also first- and second-viola duets between Reardon and Gregorian and first- and second-violin duets between Shaham and Mills. The composition required lightning-fast fingering in the first violin, contrasted with lightning-fast bowing in the second violin and first viola as well.

The concert marked a relatively new lineup for the festival: while Shaham has appeared more than once before, this marked Mills’ second appearance. And Reardon, a Grammy Award nominee in 2010 who is an ECU string faculty member with Gregorian, last played in a regular festival program in 2008, although she also has performed in the festival’s more recent “Next Generation” concerts. Mills, also a Grammy Award nominee, is a member of several chamber music ensembles, and Arron, who played here last season and in several earlier festivals, has served as artistic coordinator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’ Artists in Concert program since 2003.  Together, this quintet created a splendid concert to open the 2011-2 season.