Two chamber works from the last third of the nineteenth century initiated this season’s “Rice Toyota Sitkovetsky & Friends” chamber series held in the UNCG Recital Hall. GSO Music Director Dmitry Sitkovetsky’s “friend” this concert was the esteemed pianist, Vladimir Feltsman, also an emigrant from Russia. In fact, the two attended the same grade school for gifted artists in Moscow, although Sitkovetsky was quick to point out that when he arrived as a first-grader, Feltsman was already as student there.

Brahms worked on all three of his three piano quartets in his late 20s, although only two were published then. It wasn’t until he was in his 40s that he completed his last, the C minor, Op. 60.  This is a dark, passionate work. Brahms himself gave his publisher permission to put a picture of a man with a pistol in his hand on the cover, which would give “an idea of the music.”

The first movement is tragic in mood, beginning with stark octaves in the piano, with the strings responding with pleading despair. Brahms described the tone: “Imagine a man who is going to commit suicide because nothing else remains for him to do.” Feltsman, Sitkovetsky, and Scott Rawls (viola) and Alexander Ezerman (cello) caught hold of this mood and kept the reins taut throughout. Feltsman is a powerful pianist; in fact, I thought that he would initially drown out the other musicians, but soon the balance was righted, and the four communicated with fluidity and sensitivity. The second movement Scherzo revealed Feltsman as a pianist with great rhythmic drive, which spurred the other musicians to equally exciting playing. The third movement Andante begins with a soulful cello tune, which Ezerman exquisitely crafted. The melodic lines are passed seamlessly from one instrument to another. The Finale Allegro returns the despairing mood of the opening, and all four musicians gave vent to the full-throated romantic sentiment. When one hears an impassioned performance such as this one, the listener is appreciative of the artistry of the composition itself because of the dedication and commitment of each of the four musicians to communicate the composer’s intent.

The evening opened with Antonín Dvořák’s final String Quartet, No. 14 in A-flat, Op. 105.  Rawls and Ezerman were joined by violinists Marjorie Bagley and Fabian Lopez. These four string players comprise the UNCG faculty McIver Quartet. This quartet, which Dvořák began in the United States but did not complete until he returned to Bohemia, is a long four-movement composition that shows the composer in full possession of his powers. Having written chamber music for more than 35 years, the work reveals a composer in a joyful and peaceful mood. Dvořák begins both the first and last movement with the cello. The opening of the first movement is mysterious, with dramatic pauses; the music quickly becomes assertive and melodic, with all four musicians contributing in a more or less equal fashion, with Bagley clearly in the driver’s seat. The lively second movement fairly skips along and functions as a Scherzo. The slow third movement allows for some relaxation, and the musicians played as if they were four friends in a conversation. The opening of the final Allegro ma non troppo returns the drama of the first movement, before music of a lighter character appears.  Although this work is not blatantly based on folk music, the rustic tunes and rhythms are never far below the surface, one of Dvořák’s trademarks. All in all, the fourth movement rounds out the quartet in happy spirits.

While one might have asked for a warmer timbre from the ensemble, the McIver Quartet played with sensitivity and admirable attention to dynamics, playing many passages exquisitely softly.