This final concert of the Raleigh Chamber Music Guild‘s 2011-12 season marked the end of the seventeen-year directorship of Nancy Lambert. The Guild has expanded its community outreach efforts and has had an enviable record of commissions under her leadership. After several venues were explored, the current use of the intimate and accessible Fletcher Opera Theater has been most welcome. The Los Angeles Piano Quartet’s enterprising program, a Mozart piece, a contemporary work by Steven Stucky, and a gorgeous work by Fauré, was a perfect celebratory finish!

Mozart’s two Piano Quartets are associated with one of the composer’s unsuccessful business dealings. He contracted with the published Franz Anton Hoffmeister in 1785 to compose three piano quartets, a format little used at the time. Instead of using the keyboard as a continuo as had been typical, Mozart treated all four instruments as equals. Hoffmeister claimed the First Piano Quartet in G minor was too difficult for the amateur player. The furious composer released Hoffmeister from the contract but retained his advance payment for the set. Nine months later, Mozart composed the Second Piano Quartet in E-flat, K. 493, the ensemble’s selection, and was able to get both works published by Artaria in 1787.

Mozart’s Second Piano Quartet was an excellent test of the Los Angeles Piano Quartet’s instrumental skill and mastery of classical style. Mozart is merciless to the slightest deviation in pitch or ensemble. The balance between the keyboard and the strings was excellent and the string players’ intonation was precise. Pianist Xak Bjerken spun a seamless singing line from the beautiful and finely tuned Bösendorfer. Cellist Steven Doane provided a full rich sound that blended well with the mellow viola sound of Katherine Murdock, and the soaring high notes provided by violinist Yehonatan Berick. The musicians’ articulation in the fastest passages was scrupulous.

The Piano Quartet (2005) of Steven Stucky (b. 1949) was commissioned and premiered by the Los Angeles Piano Quartet. The composer played viola in his youth and never missed a chance to play chamber music. He became immersed in the piano quartet literature including those of Mozart, Brahms, and Fauré. Stucky’s piano quartet is played in one continuous movement but consists of several readily identifiable sections. The raw musical material, bell-like sonorities first in the piano and later in the strings, is treated as a kind of set of variations. It was fascinating to follow the bell-like figure from ostinato piano notes to ringing harmonics taken in turn by each string player. The work has some wonderful lyric music for the strings set in contrast to stark keyboard chords. The variety of plucked strings was delightful. This was one of the all too few modern works to leave this listener wanting to hear it again. It ought to be a welcome addition to the repertoire.

The Second Piano Quartet in G minor, Op. 45 (1886) of Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924) is very different from the popularly held view of his pieces as soothing studies in color and elegance. Opus 45 opens stormily with unison strings digging into a dramatic melody set against agitated piano harmonies. There are hints or foreshadows of the impressionism of Debussy. The second movement features remarkable syncopation setting the keyboard’s main theme against the strings’ deformed version of the main theme of the first movement. Ravishing writing for the strings, often centered upon the viola being paired with either the cello or violin or a solo, dominates the third movement. Fauré’s mastery of craft, taste, and refined expression is apparent throughout the high energy romp of the finale. The ensemble’s performance was by turns enthralling and spellbinding. Violist Murdock’s playing was simply breath-taking!

The well-earned, prolonged standing ovation was rewarded by an entrancing performance of the “Andante cantabile” from the Piano Quartet in E-flat, Op. 47 by Robert Schumann (1810-56). This has been aptly called a “love ballad that moves from spirituality to ecstasy” by Melvin Berger in Guide to Chamber Music. The piano accompanies as the violin, cello, and viola take up the aching, longing song. Doane’s deep, resonant cello playing was enthralling.