Review: Quartet offers, by chance, program of Romantic works at Union’s Memorial Chapel

Pianist Pei-Yao Wang brought three of her friends Sunday afternoon to play at Union College’s Memori

Pianist Pei-Yao Wang brought three of her friends Sunday afternoon to play at Union College’s Memorial Chapel as part of the 38th International Festival of Chamber Music.

Wang, who was making her sixth appearance in the series, brought longtime collaborator cellist Sophie Shao, who was also making her sixth appearance. Violinist Carmit Zori, who heads the Brooklyn Chamber Music Society, and violist Eric Nowlin, the associate principal violist with the Toronto Symphony, have both played in the series with the Musicians from Marlboro.

With such excellent people on board, it was no accident that the three works on the program were performed with a zealous commitment, brilliant techniques and strong ensemble. It also helped that all three were Romantic works — something that was unintentional considering the day was Valentine’s Day, Nowlin told the large crowd.

What was most impressive about the first work on the program — Mendelssohn’s Piano Quartet No. 1 in C minor, Op. 1 (1822) — was that the composer was all of 13 when he composed it. The work showed a brilliant grasp of writing for a quartet, an ability to express himself lyrically, and a mature sensibility that was marvelous. Mendelssohn’s own piano playing, which was considered fabulous, was demonstrated in the virtuosic passages he gave to the piano part.

The musicians, who were equally matched, played with big sounds, solid pacing and good balance. The second movement had a charming gaiety but the players’ subdued emotionality only hinted at what was possible. Wang was wonderfully light in the quicksilver scales of the third movement. She played at the front part of the beat, which pushed the strings to keep up, and gave the music an edge.

The finale evenly distributed the demands although Wang’s part tended to be more soloistic. The short coda pushed the already fleet tempo even more.

Faure’s Piano Quartet No. 2 in G minor, Op. 45 (1886) was filled with Impressionistic colors and lush lyricism. Yet an inspiration for the work’s unusual repetitive percussiveness came from the noisy clamor of a machinist’s shop, Nowlin said. That voice made for interesting juxtapositions of melody against rhythm, passion vs. angst, and sunny colors vs. mysterious darkness.

The quartet got off to a quick start with Wang sounding out the machine’s clatter against the lyrical strings. The second movement was even more of a mood than any theme. The third was almost rhapsodic with Debussy-like clusters, summer colors, and mystery. The finale was orchestral and soaring.

The players were passionate and forceful throughout, which was sometimes thrilling. There was, however, little subtlety or refined nuances.

That lack was more transparent in Schumann’s Piano Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 47 (1842). Although there are many wonderful moments of melody, buoyancy and even sweetly mysterious frolics in the work, the players stuck to their parts and did nothing to vary the oft-repeated themes. Their exuberance got a standing ovation, but they often played so loudly they had no place to go when the passages climaxed.

The next concert at 3 p.m. Sunday is a Chopin-Schumann marathon and will probably run later than usual, said series organizer Dan Berkenblit.

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