Thursday, February 12, 2015

German quartet that memorializes a French composer returns to Ensemble Music Society series

The  Fauré Piano Quartet has impressed the Ensemble Music Society before, and its return Wednesday night drew a capacity crowd to the Indiana History Center's 300-seat Basile Theater. 

The Fauré Quartet showed its mastery of its namesake composer.
There was no room for disappointment in a program that held up the gold standard of this sturdy, but small-scale, genre of violin, viola, cello and piano. A work by the ensemble's namesake crowned the concert: Gabriel Fauré's luminous Quartet in C minor,  op. 15.

Fauré's chaste, animated style — which enabled even his work for larger forces to retain a chamber-music intimacy — was superbly represented here. The work is a model of smoothly connected inspirations, in which each phrase nestles next to its fellow, and none goes wasted.

Coherence is both emotional and structural, as the first movement demonstrated Wednesday. The second movement, a tasty Scherzo, presented a conspicuous indication that there's a special way of playing compatibly with strings that pianists engaged in "pickup" groups often fail to manage.

It's more than just trying to be conscientious not to lord it over one's string colleagues. It's a matter of finding the right dynamics, the right articulation and the right kind of phrasing to complement the strings. Dirk Mommertz had the essence of his role firmly in hand. Pianists have to deal with the fact that, in terms of sonority, the piano and string instruments are uneasy partners. In spite of that, many fine works have been written for the combination of keyboard and two or more strings. So the repertoire is tempting to many players who don't make a specialty of the piano quartet.

Mommertz showed the knack. Often, as in the C minor quartet's scherzo, the piano is required to lead the way, stating matters first and providing a unifying force. The pianist's skill at doing so was a notable element of the finale of Richard Strauss's early Quartet in C minor, op. 13. He was able to state phrases due to be echoed by his string colleagues — violinist Erika Geldsetzer, violist Sasha
Frömbling, and cellist Konstantin Heidrich — in an authoritative yet string-friendly manner.

That Strauss quartet, new to me, was a revelation of the precocious gifts of a composer later to be best known for his tone poems, operas and songs. There is the familiar overripe lyricism (third movement) and the effusive wit, flirtatiousness and Black Forest magic (the second-movement scherzo). With its huge dynamic range and abrupt contrasts expertly managed by the  Fauré, the opening movement displayed the protean master of symphonic scenarios to come. Throughout were foreshadowings of the Straussian operatic brand of nostalgia for the baroque and classical periods tucked into sometimes lush romantic textures and gestures: The composer of "Der Rosenkavalier," "Ariadne auf Naxos," and "Capriccio" is embryonic in this score.

The concert opened with an example of strictly held, freeze-dried romanticism from our own era by the contemporary German composer Volker David Kirchner. The eight-minute work was tensely launched in pianissimo terms, every sound under careful control. Near-the-bridge tremolos signaled a build-up of intensity. A gently swaying theme, with fragmentary interruptions, characterized the whole. Its rigid understatement made Kirchner's Piano Quartet No. 1 less something I would want to hear again than it was a perfect curtain-raiser for this particular program.

The Quartet's web page (English version) has an amusing typo that death-of-classical-music whiners might call a Freudian slip: A sentence that enumerates some of the group's concert activity claims its success in "getting children exited in chamber music." After taking delight in the Fauré's arrangement of Mussorgsky's "Ballet of the Chicks in Their Shells" (from "Pictures at an Exhibition") — presented as an encore — I'm doubly sure that the right word is "excited"! (As of today, Feb. 13, it's been fixed.)

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