Pianist Pei-Yao Wang brought three of her friends Sunday afternoon to Union College’s Memorial Chapel to play a traditional program of Mozart and Brahms. The concert was part of the 37th International Festival of Chamber Music.
Wang was in her fifth appearance on the series. With her was violinist Tai Murray, who played here last week with ECCO, violist Eric Nowlin, who is the current associate principal violist with the Toronto Symphony, and cellist Sophie Shao, who at 19 already has an international career. They’re a talented and well-matched bunch so it was to be expected that they would demonstrate immaculate techniques, strong musical sensibilities and strong chamber music mentalities.
The quartet excelled on all these levels and applied them especially well in the opening Mozart Piano Quartet in E-flat Major. Their refined playing, nicely finished phrases, smooth techniques and balanced but big sound in which there never was a harsh note or attack, were perfect for the piece.
They set easy tempos and their pure tone emphasized Mozart’s charming melodies and gentle moods. There were few if any gestures. It was all very civilized.
But in the two Brahms Piano Quartets, a little more hubris was needed. The first movement of the Quartet in C minor began with mystery, then opened into some taut drama before spinning out much eloquent lyricism. Textures were meaty. The musicians did everything right except to lend the music a needed urgency. There was no suspense. Nowlin, however, played a very good solo with rich tones.
There was good clarity and energy in the quicker second movement, and Wang showed off a wonderfully light and facile technique over the many fast notes. The third movement, which opened with Shao’s rich cello tones followed by Murray’s interweaving lines, was a thing of beauty. The fourth movement had a little more excitement.
Despite the numerous dynamic changes, however, it was only at full volume when the quartet achieved some force. Somehow during the softer levels, the tone and the direction would melt away. The only exception was when the tempo accelerated and thus the music was headed somewhere.
In Quartet in G minor, which in itself is remarkable for its conception and imaginative lyricism, the players couldn’t help but make strong statements. Yet even in some of the most gorgeous moments, such as the second movement’s almost swoon-like material, the players needed an edge. It was all too right, too just so.
Fortunately, the music supplied much of what was needed: the martial moments in the third movement and the swirling gypsy finale that showed off the quartet’s excellent technical capabilities.