The New York Concert = MOZART: Piano Quartet No. 1 in G minor, K. 478; FAURE: Piano Quartet No. 1 in C minor, Op. 15; DVORAK: Piano Quintet in A Major, Op. 81; SHOSTAKOVICH: Piano Quintet in G minor, Op. 57: Scherzo: Allegretto – Evgeny Kissin, piano/ Emerson String Quartet – DGG 453 6574 (2 CDs) 57:43; 41:40 (4/12/19) [Distr. Universal] *****:
Pianist Evgeny Kissin (b. 1971) returns from a two-year sabbatical a refreshed and more thoughtful artist, a phenomenon some of us who admired the young Van Cliburn wished he had experienced. On 27 April 2018. Kissin and the Emerson String Quartet – Philip Setzer and Eugene Drucker, violins; Lawrence Dutton, viola; Paul Watkins, cello – who had been touring internationally with Kissin, collaborated for a powerful evening of chamber ensemble in New York City’s Carnegie Hall. The addition of cellist Paul Watkins – replacing David Finckel – centers the Emerson Quartet upon a dark-toned, burnished sound equally committed to sonic luxury.
The program opens with Mozart’s 1785 Piano Quartet in G minor, the first of what Mozart had planned as three such piano quartets for publisher Franz Anton Hoffmeister. The passionate work begins with a unison motif that serves as fateful leitmotif that has its foil in the lyrical theme played by string alone. In sonata form, the piece assumes an intricate Mozart development and dramatic urgency, as has been Mozart’s wont in the key of G minor. The keyboard writing, virtuosic in a concertante style, evinces the brilliance and pointed restraint we recognize from his piano concertos of the period. The articulation of the violin and viola parts become no less compelling in their silken runs and scales.
The lush Andante movement in B-flat Major proceeds in a form that extends the arioso, lyrical element without formally developing the themes. The intricate melodic structure indulges in shifting accents and downbeats so that the sense of measure remains ambiguous. The piano manages transition through semi-cadenza passagework. The first violin, too, carries the melodic tissue forward. The Rondo in G Major displays Mozart’s apparently boundless capacity for captivating melody, moving forward by alternating piano and strings in conversation, with an occasional foray into the minor mode. The rich textures call upon the viola and cello to add a sonorous, plastic interplay that never ceases to enchant by the sheer dint of vocal invention.
The 1876-79 Piano Quartet in C minor of Gabriel Faure came about after the emotional disappointments of a frustrated love affair with Marianne Viardot in which plans of marriage disintegrated. For a relatively early work in Faure’s extensive career as a molder of chamber music, the Quartet demonstrates a rich and fertile sense of his idiosyncratic modal harmony, utilizing a martial, dotted, rhythmic melody that suffuses the first movement, Allegro molto moderato. The piano proceeds in wide, generous arpeggios, the violin and cello indulging in a spacious melody. The development expresses that nervous, chromatic calm that defines the tenebrous world of Faure, an emotional eddy that will rise in scales to a passionate outburst. Typical of the Faure style, the coda of the first movement recedes gently into space. The Scherzo: Allegro vivo reveals a manic urgency we do not often associate with the Faure ethos. Rhythmic shifts abound while the texture of the music literally glitters with driven colors. Nice dialogue ensues between the keyboard and the viola. A lyrical theme spins out for the middle section, with Kissin’s airy, arpeggiated support under the strings’ chordal figures.
The emotional heart of the piece lies in the Adagio, a somber and introspective reminiscence, perhaps, of Faure’s recently lost love. Here the Watkins cello makes its presence known, first hesitant and groping, then lyrically expansive. The first violin then intones a truly gripping melody that swells in power and anguish. The piano proceeds by a rising scalar pattern whose contour resembles the Faure solo keyboard music, except that here the lush cadences with the strings assume “symphonic” sonorities. Kissin’s ability to subdue his sound to create a seamless blend of the moody “Faure sound” warrants repeated listening. Dotted rhythms once more mark the Allegro molto finale, the viola part’s assuming a prominent role for color and dynamism. The piano delivers a sense of relentless momentum though the lyrical second theme – viola driven – will direct the development to a passionate culmination. The keyboard writing reveals something of Faure’s debts to his master, Camille Saint-Saens. The cello leads a series of tender interplays within the string community that the piano counters with brisk, virtuoso runs. A throbbing warmth infiltrates the performance as it moves ineluctably through the composer’s blazing chromatics. The color scheme becomes more diversified and enchanted, moving with silky sophistication that never descends into empty bravura, despite the magnificent velocity and passionate impetus of the last page.
The dazzling Piano Quintet in A Major, Op. 81 by Dvorak had its premiere in 1888, with the composer at the height of his creative powers, and the keyboard part had Karol Kararovic and four expert chamber musicians. The fluent spontaneity of the composition reflects Dvorak’s happy work environment at Vysoka, his country retreat. Utilizing grand gestures peppered with Slavic folk tunes, Dvorak fashions a work brilliant in rhythmic diversity and melodic appeal. The opening of the work features a lulling cello melody over piano arpeggios, a feint that leads to crisp figures that do not relent while Dvorak explores various color combinations and cross rhythms. The viola introduces the secondary tune, upon which Kissin creates a sweet transition that soon gathers girth, in texture and melodic power. First violin Setzer has pride of place in the recapitulation, in which the main theme has become an illuminated procession.
The two interior movements draw their sustenance from the folk: the Dumka: Andante con moto had the principals’ discussing their slowing down their otherwise brisk tempo to maintain the depth of music’s expansive expression. The music offers two tempos, of which the faster, Un pochettino piu mosso, contains the melodic ardor, while the slower tempo, Andante con moto, projects – via the viola – a stately thoughtfulness. The music advances Vivace, to achieve the composer’s impassioned ideal of the Dumka as a “wild dance” of contrasting affects. The reflective mood returns, with Kissin’s contributing his share of liquid intimacy. The inspired Scherzo movement in opening cross-rhythms combines the Czech Furiant with a waltz motif, a strategy common to late Dvorak. For me, the amazing trio section – in which the two violins over the keyboard create an idyll – has been central to my musical sensibility ever since Clifford Curzon and the Budapest Quartet realized its superb magic. The elegant mystery of the music’s beauty no less mesmerizes us here. Dvorak appears to follow Schumann’s model in his Finale: Allegro, in which a series of interlocked melodies will undergo contrapuntal treatment in the course of their seamless evolution into the recapitulation. Somehow, in the midst of brilliant, hasty, fiery gestures, Dvorak pulls on the reins with transparent chords that yet once more invoke “and so my children” in the best bedtime-story fashion. One more (pentatonic) rush to the coda proves as compelling as any performance we know.
The Emerson players and Kissin proffer one short encore, the Allegretto from Dmitri Shostakovich’s otherwise bitter 1943 Piano Quintet in G minor, Op. 57. This acerbic, playfully ironic music has its own demons, which this rendition does little to exorcise – rather, they release its driving, bellicose power in spades, to which the Carnegie Hall audience erupts with New York hysteria.