The Highlands-Cashiers Chamber Music Festival is about to wind down its 34th season, but if this concert was any indication, they’re ending the music making on nothing but high notes. Will Ransom, the festival’s Artistic Director and a participating pianist, manages to attract the kind of solid financial backing that enables an array of top notch talent to play in these two small mountain towns. Throw in additional events over the six weeks, such as Festival Feasts, numerous free concerts, family concerts, and a series of lectures on chamber music, and one gains an appreciation for the size and scope of the enterprise.

This concert at the Albert Carlton-Cashiers Community Library featured the Vega Quartet (violinists Domenic Salerni and Jessia Shuang Wu, violist Yinzi Kong, and cellist Guang Wang) performing Haydn’s String Quartet in E-flat, Op. 33, No. 2 (“The Joke”) and Leoš Janáček’s String Quartet No. 1. After intermission, they were joined by violinist Andres Cardenes and pianist Elizabeth Pridgen for Ernest Chausson’s Concerto in D for Violin, Piano and String Quartet, Op. 21. The concert was underwritten by Bobsie and Clifford Swift, and by Mary Ball, B.F. Freeman, Shain Schley, and Turner Ball in memory of Erna Deiglmayr.

The Haydn Quartet from 1781 was a perfect opening number. Light, elegant, and humorous in its last movement, its sounds were beautifully proportioned to fit the performance space. Vega kept musical lines nicely balanced, with an air of polite restraint and moderate tempi. The second movement Scherzo was delightful for its folksy trio and humorous glissandi in the first violin. The third movement featured low, then high duets, plus a more prominent viola part. Occasionally downbows were employed so strongly that the instruments continued to resonate into the ensuing rests. The otherwise dead-pan quartet played up the famous when-is-this-piece-going-to-end finale by having the violist stand for a bow one phrase short of the end, bringing a roar of approval and applause from the audience.

Janáček composed his first String Quartet in 1923, inspired by Leo Tolstoy’s novella, The Kreutzer Sonata which had been inspired in turn by Beethoven’s Sonata No. 9 (“Kreutzer”). According to Janáček, he had imagined “a poor woman, tormented and run down, just like the one the Russian writer Tolstoy describes in his Kreutzer Sonata.” Rather than writing within the music a literal correlation of events in the novel, Janáček captured the psychological essence of its narrative in rather tortured tones. From the opening declamations in cello and violin of the first movement, we were put on notice this would be no easy listening experience. Janáček reached, instead, for a language of hyper intensity, wrought by extreme dynamic changes, muscular gestures, and the occasional gossamer chordal passage. The music’s very unpredictability mirrored so beautifully Tolstoy’s depictions of souls tortured by intense feelings and misunderstandings. In the second movement, phrases would crescendo a fevered pitch, only to break off suddenly. Eerie sounds of tremolos played “sul ponticello” sounded like static interjected unwelcomingly into a frightful argument. Phrases weren’t spun; rather, they were etched indelibly into our hearing. The final movement was noteworthy for its various planes of activity that melded here and there into brief, strident passages. This was music calculated to put your hair on end, and the Vega Quartet characterized its unsettling language to perfection.

Ernest Chausson’s Concerto in D for Violin, Piano and String Quartet, Op. 21 (1889-1891) is unique in his oeuvre, as he tended to gravitate toward composing songs and other small chamber combinations. As its name implies, this chamber concerto features two solo instruments that are accompanied by a string quartet in lieu of a full orchestra along the lines of a Vivaldi concerto da camera, but totally surpassing those early works in harmonic language and technical demands. The work was composed under the tutelage of Cesar Franck and dedicated to famed violinist Eugène Ysaÿe who performed at the work’s premiere in Brussels in 1892.

The concerto places heavy demands on both soloists. Cardenes remained standing to play, producing tones that were incomparably rich and full and easily projected above the ensemble. The demands on Pridgen were enormous and unrelenting, with well nigh constant passagework that ripped up and down the entire range of the instrument in all four movements. Both soloists and the quartet had keen ears for sound calibration, and wove their parts within the ensemble with consummate mastery. As I sat way in the back of the small hall listening to this work of overwhelming strength, I kept thinking that the festival needs a bigger venue in Cashiers and a full-size concert grand piano, where, with improved acoustics, more justice could be given to these magnificent musical works. The audience rose to give a rousing ovation to these deserving artists.