Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Discovery Week Chamber Music Series: Drew Petersen and Pacifica Quartet have lofty rapport in Franck Quintet

With such a piece as Cesar Franck's Piano Quintet in F minor, there's a sense in which the listener has to be just as prepared as the performers.

A preposterous notion, no? The work is not all that hard to "follow," and the composer's language is somewhat familiar, even if you don't know any other Franck but the Symphony in D minor.

Drew Petersen and the Pacifica Quartet soared to the heights of Franck.
But the mastery Drew Petersen and the Pacifica Quartet displayed in a noontime performance Wednesday at Christ Church Cathedral seemed to ask for — and receive — full commitment to the experience from all who heard it. Those cyclical themes and motifs, that sinuous chromaticism, the almost disturbing, turbocharged energy poured out in the first and third movements, the mixed-message cooling off in the middle movement! Far too much there for even sporadic indifference on the part of the listener! And everyone at this American Pianists Association concert seems to have signed on for the expedition.

The question-and-answer opening is bound to arrest the attention — strings first, then piano. Petersen imparted an almost hesitant quality to the piano's presentation of its calling card. It's as if the piano announces: I'm quite amenable to dialogue with these people, but I will engage on my own terms, thank you. Expressively as well as formally, however, the quartet and the pianist are charged with finding common ground and holding on to it with all their might.

And so they did. The slow first part of the opening gave the Pacifica plenty of opportunity to heighten the music's emotional profile without forcing — just as they do in their excellent accounts of the Shostakovich quartets on Cedille. Combined, the musicians were consistent in flexibility of dynamics and tempo. Petersen was touchingly eager to keep coordination exact, looking over frequently to the quartet — at phrase beginnings, at every tempo adjustment, sometimes even when note values markedly shifted at the same tempo.

Petersen never stinted on letting the piano ring out, as it did thrillingly when the finale moved toward its all-enveloping climax. The first pianist to play the Franck quintet must have indeed had his withers wrung. It's reported that the patrician grand maitre of French music, Camille Saint-Saens, turned and strode offstage when the composer entered after the 1880 premiere to greet the performers. As I suggested above, you've got to be in sync with this piece emotionally in order to embrace it. The Pacifica Quartet and Drew Petersen certainly were, and they brought the audience along with them.

Earlier, Petersen's dexterity and evenness of touch were well displayed in "La Leggierezza," one of Liszt's Three Concert Etudes. So was his keen sense of following the music's rhetorical import through the kind of textures that tempt a performer to get lost in luxuriant undergrowth.

The pianist opened his solo program with Beethoven's Sonata No. 22 in F major, op. 54.  The composer who turned the symphonic minuet into the more emphatic scherzo here signals with the heading "Tempo d'un menuetto" that little besides the tempo and the meter of the courtly dance form needs to be retained. Accordingly, the assertive opening was followed up boldly here. Petersen's control was immaculate, as shown by the steady diminuendo on repeated chords near the end of the movement. The second and final movement was fleet and amply nuanced, again revealing the exactitude that seems to come naturally to him without ever turning mechanical.

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