When Rockport Music Executive Director Tony Beadle came onstage to welcome the audience for Sunday’s concert by the ad hoc piano quartet comprising Andrés Cárdenes, violin; Yinzi Kong, viola; Anne Martindale Williams, cello; and David Deveau, piano, he felt the need to anticipate criticism that the first half of the program was unusually short by pointing out that the second half would be quite substantial. And indeed, the total number of musical minutes involved in the two-work program of Dóhnanyi and Brahms was right on target for a standard chamber music evening, though those minutes did seem to fly by, which is of course not at all a bad thing. Cárdenes and Williams appear together in the Pittsburgh Symphony (Cárdenes as concertmaster and Williams as principal cello) and in the Carnegie Mellon Piano Trio. Kong continues as a founding member of the Vega Quartet, while Deveau, Artistic Director of Rockport Music, will be stepping down after next season to devote more time, among other things, to solo repertoire and recording.
The Serenade in C for String Trio, Op. 10 by Ernő (Ernst von) Dohnányi deserves much more play than it has gotten recently (last Boston area performance in 2012, according to the BMInt archives), and the composer seems to be regaining some of the status he enjoyed during his lifetime as one of the triumvirate (with Bartók and Kodály) of great Hungarian composers of the early-to-mid 20th century. As the older of the group (born 4 years before Bartók, 5 before Kodály) and as a matter of temperament, his was the idiom most rooted to the international European tradition. His Piano Quintet No. 1, Op. 6, conveyed a very Brahmsian flavor and, indeed, attracted the master’s keen interest. The Serenade, just a couple of years later, is a remarkable piece, both inherently and in context. In five movements that mimic the serenades and wind partitas of Mozart, this work passes with delicacy and lightness, in contrast to the beard-pulling demeanor of the Quintet, but at the same time it reflects a decisive turn in Dohnányi’s style to a more chromatic style that sometimes rivals Reger and early Schoenberg in its twisty byways.
The brief first movement opened with a vigorous, robustly folkish march in which Cárdenes, Kong and Williams bounced in full measure. At its conclusion, some audience members started applauding, to which Kong quipped, with reference to Beadle’s opening remarks, “It’s not that short!” The following Romanza featured a lovely tune carried by each player in turn, beginning with a ravishingly lush and mellow reading by Kong, and ending with Cárdenes’s sweetly delicate one. The central scherzo was angular, edgy, contrapuntal and densely chromatic, without losing its sense of spidery fun, with a trio lyrically off-kilter. The variations movement, based on a folk-like hymnodic tune, has many lovely moments, and in the second variation allowed Williams her most substantial solo, which was forthright and rhapsodic. The rondo finale provides a rambunctious and peppy principal tune, with contrasting episodes by turns lyrical (while still quite chromatic) and folky but not explicitly Hungarian, before returning to the opening march. The Cárdenes-Kong-Williams Trio gave the whole thing a thoroughly enticing persuasiveness.
Brahms’s Op. 25 first quartet has developed a wide and devoted following for its angular concentration and rousing Hungarian finale (Schoenberg even orchestrated it, though he made no improvement on the original), and the third, Op. 60 (though half written in the 1850s when his opus numbers were in single digits), is noted for its heartfelt anguish and tragic lyricism (the boy-loses-girl motif). His 50-plus-minute Piano Quartet No. 2 in A Major, Op. 26, which we heard, sits between them as a monumental artifact, being both intensely structured and emotionally charged. Even for Brahms, this piece is obsessively motivic, with rocking two-note figures appearing in most movements. As Daniel Gregory Mason put it, “Even more than in the materials, however arresting as these are, the composer’s imagination displays its full glory in their development. Here we become conscious of a new and more mature quality, mingling with the garrulous youthful romanticism and frequently displacing it: a certain strictness and sparseness, an insistence on the lowest terms, the most laconic presentation of every idea, that begin to give the music a new cleanness and austerity…” This mostly appears in the first movement, but also in the curiously structured scherzo, where both the outer sections and the trio between constitute independent sonata forms. Mason clucked his tongue at the prolix rondo finale, in which the semi-folk-like theme recurs fully six times, though sometimes in altered form. The slow second movement, however, drips with beauty, oscillating between tender repose and Romantic anguish with a dash of paprika.
While on the whole the interpretation felt satisfying and deep, we take issue with their overly mannered approach to the first movement, which exaggerated the pauses between phrases; one can achieve better results using dynamics to shape the phrasing without robbing the music of its momentum. Interestingly, the foursome scaled back this exaggeration somewhat in the repeat of the exposition. What was quite impressive, though, was the balance maintained among the instruments, not always reliable in performances on the Shalin Liu stage (guess it helps to have a player who’s there every day). The slow movement sounded about as good as it gets, with Deveau especially affecting in the main theme statements; in the alternating “B” section the strings throbbed with passion. The scherzo received a moderate reading somewhere in feeling between a Ländler and a minuet, with delectably delicate turns to the phrase endings in the outer sections; the trio nicely contrasted gruffness and gentleness. The finale’s main tune was all rollicking cheerfulness until brought up short by the sober second subject; that said, moods morphed with compelling flow.