Distinguished NEC teachers violinist Donald and pianist Vivian Hornik Weilerstein found themselves strangely outnumbered with “outsiders in their faculty recital Sunday at Jordan Hall.” The Parker Quartet, while all NEC graduates, now orbits high in the quartet firmament even as it maintains a residence at Harvard. The foursome (Daniel Chong and Ying Xue, violins, Jessica Bodner, viola, and Kee-Hyun Kim, cello) combined with the two Weilersteins (famous as the Weilerstein Duo, though the two did not perform together on this program), in a probing traversal of threes and fives.
Three was represented by the surprisingly seldom-heard Terzetto in C, op. 74, by Dvořák, for two violins and viola. Written in a few days in 1887, it attempted to capitalize on the fact that a fellow tenant in the building where the Dvořáks lived was a violinist from the Prague orchestra, who had a talented student. The composer, who like many other great composers [one thinks of Hindemith and Berlioz] preferred to play the viola, wrote himself in. Alas, the work—a trio in all but name, with the differences being that the first movement is not in sonata form, and that Dvořák might have been seeking to invoke the more common use of the term in vocal music—proved a bit much for the student, so it wasn’t properly premiered until a year later. With Donald W. and Xue on violin and Bodner on viola, the threesome gave the outer sections of the first movement a creamy lyricism, with contrasting sections of lively bustle. The slow second movement has a lovely tune (what else would one expect from Dvořák?), which the players caressed with copious portamento. An interesting point about the music is a pentatonic lick near the end of this movement, which prefigures a very similar one in the American Quartet several years later. While the delineation of the separate melodic strands among the instruments was impressive in general, we were particularly taken by Bodner’s arching melodic grace, while the dotted rhythms in the middle section could have been more strongly articulated. The scherzo is built on one of those Dvořák specialties, most famously used in the Violin Concerto, of alternating phrases in three and two beats within a 3/4 or 6/8 meter. While the trio dug into this, they preferred elegance over rustic coarseness in somewhat over-polished the sound. The variations finale argued well through differentiating moods, articulations and tonal balances.
The highlight of the evening came next, the sadly underrepresented yet powerful Quintet in A Minor, op. 84, of Edward Elgar. For some reason, 1918 was a year of chamber music for Elgar, which he hadn’t paid much attention to for many years. He produced three significant works that year, the violin sonata, the second string quartet, and this quintet. It is a formidable piece, giving evidence of deep and complex thought. Needless to say, World War I weighs heavily on it, but the composer’s response was far from the stereotypical “Colonel Blimp” posture that many have ascribed to Elgar. Within an abstract format in which a short motto generates much of the musical material (it was played with dark and smoky mystery by the Parkers and Vivian W.), the first movement (and the third, as the themes return) is a kind of lament for the lost common culture of Europe: the secondary themes are clearly Hungarian and Viennese in flavor, and are not presented in the satirical way Ravel did in La Valse. It was in the slow movement, with one of Elgar’s noblest and most quintessentially English tunes, that he allowed himself a touch of grandiosity, as always tinged with melancholy. The finale opens with a sigh but attempts an affirmative outlook that turns more tentative as the movement progresses. One senses both that Elgar hoped that things would settle down to “normal” after the current unpleasantness ended, and that he realized full well how vain hope that was.
For a composer who did not have a long catalog of chamber works, Elgar certainly nailed the piano quintet medium: the strings are treated orchestrally (that is, with less of the complex interweaving one expects in a string quartet), and the piano part does not dominate the texture unless given a solo. Weilerstein and the Parkers were absolutely true to this, and combined for a fully persuasive and sensitive reading. According to our rough research (perusing the BMInt archives, which go back to 2009), the Elgar Quintet has not been performed in metro Boston (though it has been in outlying areas during the summer) in that whole time. The players on Sunday made a convincing case as to why this piece needs to be heard much more often.
The closing work was a much more popular one. The Dvořák Quintet in E-flat for string quartet plus second viola, op. 97, the American (1893). Written, like its companion, during the master’s sojourn in the Czech émigré community of Spillville, Iowa, it is much more clearly Czech in character—or at least less coyly blended between Czech and American accents. It is nevertheless sparkles with verve as vivid as anything else the composer did. While not as ubiquitous as the American Quartet, the quintet gets frequent airings, indeed, Boston Chamber Music Society plays it this very Sunday.
That said, it received a mixed performance. We were, first of all, unaware that Donald W. played viola at concert level, but that might just be inattention on our part. The opening movement, though spirited, was not as crisp and well-defined as it could have been; Chong’s solo lines didn’t soar out particularly well. What appeared in the scherzo of the Terzetto showed up here as well, a polished elegance where a bit of roughness would have been welcome. The scherzo of the Quintet, though, was in turns vigorous and delicate, with a perfumed trio section. The Larghetto came mellow and round, while the rondo finale brightened with nicely pointed accents. In all fairness, the audience did not seem to share our reservations, as they showed loud and sustained. You can judge for yourself, as NEC streams the concert on its Instant Encore site here.