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Three Quintet Configurations at UNC-Chapel Hill

by Steve Row

November 15, 2009, Chapel Hill, NC: When one considers the quintet in chamber music, the piano quintet is the configuration that most likely comes to mind. But, as the program for the second concert in the Gerrard Festival of Fall Chamber Music showed on the University of North Carolina campus, other forms of the quintet are in the chamber repertoire. For example, Mozart wrote quintets for piano and winds, clarinet and strings, and horn and strings (not to mention six string quintets), while Mendelssohn and Dvořák each wrote two string quintets and Schubert wrote one. Brahms wrote a quintet for clarinet and strings and two string quintets in addition to his well known piano quintet.

UNC faculty members offered Mozart's Quintet for Piano and Winds in E minor, K.452, Mendelssohn's Quintet in A for strings, Op. 18, and Brahms' Quintet in F minor for piano and strings, Op. 34, in the intimate setting of Gerrard Hall. The Mozart selection, featuring members of the Carolina Wind Quintet and pianist Stefan Litwin, was delightful; the Mendelssohn and Brahms quintets were somewhat less so.

So much of Mozart's chamber music carries an air of unforced elegance, and this piece is no exception. He really knew how to write for winds, too, and so the combination of elegance and wonderful scoring for wind instruments is a winning one, indeed. 

The reading by Litwin and Michael Schultz, oboe, Donald Oehler, clarinet, Andrew McAfee, horn, and John Pederson, bassoon, was polished from start to finish. The interplay among and between players and the blends of duets and trios within the full quintet framework were wonderful. Litwin's piano added a firm foundation to many parts of the work and also shone in the leads.

From the opening chords in the winds against the solo figure in the piano to the trading of lead lines among separate instruments, the quintet seemed to be in most capable hands, with crisp timing, elegant phrasing and skilled attention to dynamics. The lovely second (Larghetto) movement recalled some of the slower parts of the wind serenade (K.361), and the third (Allegretto) movement, which matched the light, almost dance-like buoyancy of the first (Largo-Allegro moderato) movement, sounded deceptively simple — until you started paying attention to the wonderfully rich harmonies that Mozart wove into the score. Schultz's oboe playing was especially notable throughout, and McAfee's horn provided a most mellow sound from start to finish. This was near-perfect music for a Sunday afternoon.

Alas, the Mendelssohn and Brahms quintets did not fare as well. UNC violinists Richard Luby and Dana Friedli, cellist Brent Wissick and violist Hugh Partridge, joined by Mallarmé Chamber Players violist Suzanne Rousso, offered some moments of fine music-making, but the overall result lacked warmth and true ensemble sound. The better playing occurred in the longer legato sections, especially in lower registers, when the strings came together in a warmer tone, augmented by Litwin's strong piano lines.  This was especially true, for example, in the second (Intermezzo-Andante sostenuto) movement of the Mendelssohn quintet and the second (Andante-Un poco adagio) movement of the Brahms quintet.

At no time did the players seem to be playing against each other, but the balance of the ensemble often seemed skewed toward the first violin, which frequently overshadowed the second violin. The two violas had moments to shine, and Wissick's cello often provided a nice underpinning to the playing, whether bowed or plucked, though there were moments in the Mendelssohn when the percussive sound of the struck strings drifted momentarily toward tunelessness.

In the Brahms, Luby's lead violin playing often came across as too dry and brittle, though the trio of first and second violin and first viola in the second movement offered a better sound, as did the dance-like fourth movement (Finale-Poco sostenuto-Allegro non troppo), in which Litwin nicely accompanied Luby and Partridge. The players' energetic approach to the music never flagged, especially in the third movement (Scherzo-Allegro) of the Brahms quintet, an energy-sapper that fairly galloped from start to finish.

Having just heard three East Carolina University faculty members, an ECU graduate and a guest cellist perform the Brahms quintet so extraordinarily well a week earlier, perhaps this reviewer was a bit spoiled. But too many intonation problems, and even a few pitch missteps, crept into the readings of the Brahms and Mendelssohn quintets in Chapel Hill for the program to be considered an unqualified success.

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