The Piano Plus Series at the Olive Free Library in Olivebridge, NY typically consists of a piano recital with an additional element, like a collaborator in one number. This year’s series opened last month [my review HERE] with a fine recital for violin and piano with no piano solos, whereas the second concert, on April 22nd, was more like String Quartet Plus, as the Pelia String Quartet offered two lengthy compositions, one of which added a piano.
In the three years since, the Pelia String Quartet formed in 2019 at the Emerson String Quartet, it has already taken Bronze at the Fischoff, toured widely, and performed at several summer festivals. It’s obviously a brave ensemble, as introduced itself to a new audience with Shostakovich’s final String Quartet, No. 15, in E Flat Minor, Op 144. One of the foursome’s members, in introducing the work, mentioned the surprising information that Shostakovich had promised the Beethoven Quartet, his favorite ensemble, to produce a total of 24 Quartets, one in each key, as he did in his 24 Preludes and Fugues.
He didn’t live long enough to complete that promise, but this 15th certainly has an elegiac quality that could have fulfilled that purpose. It consists of six Adagios. The next to last movement is labeled Funeral march: Adagio molto. I know of only one similar work in the string quartet repertoire, Haydn’s The Seven Last Words of Christ. Both examples, consisting of a long series of slow movements (Shostakovich’s runs over half an hour, Haydn’s can extend to over 80 minutes with the optional narration).
Like Haydn’s, Shostakovich’s Quartet comes from his top drawer—focused and consistently inspired. The performance remained consistently intense, and the superb cello played by Nathan Cottrell, which was built by local luthier David Wiebe, certainly enriched the ensemble’s sound. the superb cello played by Nathan Cottrell, which was built by local luthier David Wiebe. But this experience of it was memorable. I even dare to hope that the Pelia’s traversal might have converted impresario Artistic Director George Tsontakis, who makes no secret of his Shostakovich-skepticism.
No one could complain about low spirits with Schumann’s Piano Quintet in E Flat Major, Op. 44, about as ebullient a piece as you can find in the chamber music repertoire. The addition of pianist Hiroko Sakurazawa produced one of those minor miracles of instantaneous collaboration which occur when excellent performers meet. Flawless ensemble and particularly fine balance resulted.
At times a little more flexibility in tempo seemed wanted, but things never became overly driven. The high spirits remained consistent throughout.
Long life and success to the Pelia String Quartet! Piano Plus concludes this season on May 13th with pianist-composer John Halle. No doubt his “plus” will be his excellent violinist/violist wife Marka Gustavsson.
Leslie Gerber, who lives in Woodstock, New York, has been reviewing professionally since 1966, for such venues as Performance Today, Fanfare, and Amazon.com. He also publishes the Parnassus Records label.