Written by: David M. Rice
Piano Quartet in D minor
Piano Quintet in A minor, Op.84
The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center:
Wu Han (piano)
Ani Kavafian & Arnaud Sussmann (violins)
Paul Neubauer (viola)
Fred Sherry (cello)
Alice Tully Hall, New York City
Sunday, 25 February, 2007
This was the last of four concerts in the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center’s winter festival on the theme “An English Musical Renaissance, 1900-1930”. It closed the festival with two almost precisely contemporaneous chamber works for piano and strings – Elgar’s A minor Piano Quintet and Walton’s Piano Quartet – both composed in 1918-1919. The juxtaposition of these works appropriately symbolised the changing of the guard from the composers who had dominated English music at the close of the nineteenth century and the very beginning of the twentieth to the younger generation who were to be prominent for decades to come. Both works were played excellently by the Society’s musicians.
Sir Edward Elgar was less than two weeks short of his sixty-second birthday, and generally acknowledged to be England’s greatest composer, when his Piano Quintet had its Wigmore Hall public premiere. With the completion in 1918-1919 of the Piano Quintet, his two other major chamber works (the Violin Sonata and the String Quartet), and his Cello Concerto, Elgar’s composing career, including all of his major works, was almost completely behind him. William Walton was then a seventeen-year-old student at Christ Church College, Oxford, with relatively little formal musical training. His Piano Quartet, still a work in progress, was his first major composition. Despite his rather limited skills at the keyboard, Walton’s playing of a movement from the Quartet so impressed the Sitwells – Edith, Osbert and Sacheverell – that they took him under their wing and became instrumental in launching his career. Walton revised the Quartet in 1921 (and, again, in 1975), but it was not premiered until 1924, by which time he was already famous for “Façade”, his setting of poems by Edith Sitwell.
At the outset of the Walton Quartet, Kavafian’s violin stated the principal theme above the cello’s bass line. After the entries of the viola and piano came an outburst of youthful exuberance and rather modern harmonies, which continued to characterize the sonata-form first movement, marked Allegramente. Neubauer’s viola was softly expressive in the melodic second subject. Whilst piano passages and string tremolos suggested the influence of French composers, particularly Ravel, there was also a sense of continuity with such English composers as Elgar and Vaughan Williams. The energy level remained high in the bright Allegro scherzando, with its fugal passages and influences of Stravinsky – features that would reappear even more strongly in the final movement.
Neubauer’s viola stood out again in the central section of the Andante tranquillo, a sweetly lyrical tune that was preceded and followed by a gentle melody in the violin, beautifully harmonised and accented by the other players. The finale, Allegro molto, is based on a folk-dance-like rondo subject much in the manner of Vaughan Williams, but Walton’s treatment of that theme is quite eclectic, with strong influences from Stravinsky and American jazz. A brilliantly played mid-movement fugue showed off the surprising level of accomplishment and sophistication of its youthful composer. Other high points included Sherry’s melodic cello solos, Han’s ‘Petrushka’-like piano solo, and the coda, with its jazzy final cadence.
In Elgar’s Piano Quintet, which followed the interval, the addition of a second violin, ably played by Arnaud Sussmann, gave the ensemble a richer and more complex texture than in the Walton. Elgar’s harmonies are more firmly rooted in the nineteenth-century Romantic Movement, strongly influenced by Brahms, whose music Elgar admired and championed even before it had become widely popular in Britain.
In the Quintet’s opening Moderato, the players captured the mysterious atmosphere established at the outset by the eerie four-note motif that recurs throughout the movement. This is said to have been inspired by a stand of gnarled trees near Elgar’s West Sussex home, and the composer himself described it as “ghostly”. The ensemble, and particularly Han’s piano, also projected the Brahmsian harmonies and textures that prevailed in the middle of the movement, finally returning to the mysterious opening motif to bring the movement to its quiet close.
Neubauer’s extended viola solo opening the Adagio was played with great tenderness, and in the course of the movement each of the strings had lovely solo turns. The piano served mostly as an accompanist here, often playing arpeggios as the strings carried the melodic burdens. The final movement begins with a brief Andante introduction, then shifted to an Allegro tempo that featured syncopated rhythms, agitated figures in the strings, and the return of thematic material from the opening movement. The atmosphere here was far more upbeat and genial than at the opening of the work, however, and the grand finale closed it on a decidedly optimistic note.
The Chamber Music Society’s festival provided audiences with a welcome opportunity to acquaint themselves with, and to understand and appreciate, a rather neglected body of excellent chamber music. Most of the pieces on the four festival programmes had never before been performed by the Society, but one can hope that at least some of them will find their way into the ongoing repertory, and that other works by these composers and their contemporaries will also find their way into future programmes. The festival also showed off to great advantage the Society’s enormously talented roster of musicians, all of whom played with skill and sensitivity.