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Marc-André Hamelin Shines in Diverse Piano Quintets

New York
Carnegie Hall, Weill Recital Hall
03/01/2023 -  
Corrado Maria Saglietti: Notte serena
Florence Price: Quintet in A Minor for Piano and Strings
Johannes Brahms: Quintet in F Minor for Piano and Strings, op.34

Marc-André Hamelin (piano), Members of Orchestra of St. Luke’s: Kevin Cobb (flugelhorn), Krista Bennion Feeney, Jesse Mills (violins), Dana Kelley (viola), Myron Lutzke (cello), John Feeney (double‑bass)

J. Mills, K. Bennion Feeney, M.‑A. Hamelin, M. Lutzke, D. Kelley (© Craddock)

For its most recent program, Orchestra of St. Luke’s (OSL) Chamber Music Series chose two piano quintets: one unquestionable masterpiece by Brahms, the other, far less known and only now gaining visibility, by Florence Price. This program was offered twice: first, at Merkin Hall at their 11 AM presentation, and a day later at the Weill Hall @ Carnegie Hall. OSL was fortunate to gain the cooperation of the Canadian virtuoso pianist Marc Andre Hamelin, nowadays considered by many as one of the greatest masters of the keyboard before the public.

Unlike the concert at Merkin Hall, the Carnegie Hall program included, as a prelude, a short prayer‑like composition by Corrado Maria Saglietti (b.1957), Notte serena (2003) for five strings and flugelhorn. That evening it was performed in memory of Robert Appel, a visionary philanthropist and a music lover, who passed on Nov. 19, 2022 and who was also a Board Member of OSL. In that performance the five strings were joined by the orchestra trumpeter Kevin Cobb, whose chair was also endowed by Mr. Appel.

The Piano Quintet inA  Minor by Florence Price followed. In recent years, this African-American composer (1887‑1953) has enjoyed a renaissance and her solo, chamber music and orchestral compositions, for good reason, have attracted new interest. Many of her compositions lay dormant for decades, many were only recently discovered and it seems that her Piano Quintet (one of two) was originally composed in the 1930s, though revisions continued until shortly before her death. Price was a classically trained composer who, in search for her themes, delved deeply into her own rich tradition of spiritual, blues, folk music, dance or plantation tunes. In that respect she was following the footsteps of Antonín Dvorák by infusing her compositions with folk music, except her reliance on her roots was even far greater than his. In her case, it seems as if there is no movement, no phrase that would not be influenced by that rich tradition. Antonín Dvorák strongly believed and championed the idea that a noble school of American composition would come from the folk music of “Negro Spirituals”.

Not much is known about the circumstance bringing about the creation of Price’s Piano Quintet in A minor, other than it is estimated to be written around 1935, in the middle of a productive decade for Ms. Price. In the surrounding years, Price was especially close to her student and colleague Margaret Bonds, whose mother took in the Price family after losing their home. The Bonds’ household was a haven for Black artists and musicians, an environment that inspired Price to produce chamber music of a similar breadth to her piano and symphonic works. It is thus possible that it might have been performed privately with either Ms. Price or Ms. Bonds at the piano as both were more than capable pianists.

The work is in four movements but if one looks for a typical sonata form, with contrasting themes and motivic development, it will not be easily found in the sprawling first movement traditionally marked Allegro non troppo. It is based on a theme very much in the style of spiritual and features frequent solo declamatory outbursts of violin, here very well played by Krista Bennion Feeney. The second movement, Andante con moto, is formally better organized than a bit chaotic Allegro. In the Andante, there was a lovely reminiscence of what could be described as Americana.

Price concludes her work, that I would rename as “Four Pieces for Piano Quintet”, with two short movements: 3rd Juba-Allegro and 4th Scherzo: Allegro. It is interesting that Juba, that infectious, joyful, humorous dance‑inspired segment, appears as a third movement in several other chamber works of Ms. Price. So here we have a bit of a ragtime, back‑slapping, stomping, which must have been so deeply engraved in her heritage. The quintet concludes with a scherzo which is as energetic, positive as the previous Juba and features equally impressive writing for all five instruments. One may only guess what the reason was for Ms. Price abandoning a proper finale to the quintet: a conscious decision? a thought of coming back and finishing it later? We will perhaps never know. One could speculate that in the paucity of appropriate short movements that could be performed as encores after a performance of a major piano quintet such as Brahms, Dvorák or Franck, a little Juba movement or even the Scherzo from Ms. Price “four-pieces-for-piano-quintet” might be a brief and welcomed change.

I was very impressed by the playing of Mr. Hamelin, who in addition to being a supreme piano virtuoso, is also a superb chamber musician, able to rein his power and match the sound of his concert piano to that of strings. He would effortlessly switch from being a leader to assuming a subsidiary role which was especially effective in the Andante with its luscious harmonic language (little Fauré...) and delectable atmosphere. Needless to say, the jaunty final two movements found everyone in their high spirits, but even more importantly, in those construction-wise problematic first two movements we found all five players displaying and demonstrating a common intention, goal and vision.

For the second part of the program, the violinists changed their seats and for the Brahms Quintet, the first violinist was Jesse Mills. Thus, after an affable, attractive and what formally could be referred to as QINO (Quintet‑In‑Name‑Only), we heard one of the finest examples of chamber music ever, Brahms mighty Quintet in F Minor. As many of us know, for the composer the digestive process in creating that masterpiece was a long and tedious one. First composed as a string quintet, it didn’t find acceptance by violinist Joseph Joachim and forced the composer to rework it next as a sonata for two pianos (a version which is still being performed frequently). Finally, after Clara Schumann, who wielded authority over Brahms creative process, declared that the work should still be expanded, Brahms in 1866 presented the final version, the one we know today.

In performance of Brahms’ relatively early works–here he was barely 33 years old–artists are confronted with a dilemma. Are those compositions, such as the First Piano Concerto or this Piano Quintet, really youthful‑in‑nature or are they, as Claudio Arrau perhaps rightly claimed, totally mature works by the young composer who happened to mature very early? It seemed that our musicians, Marc‑André Hamelin and OSL quartet, opted for the first option. They offered us an energetic and propelling performance, full of verve and vitality, needless to say, bolstered by the contribution of the piano. Here, in that true‑to‑form quintet, I had a feeling that the strings had a harder time to come through and for that I would hardly blame the pianist’s tone or volume. I imagine we might have needed a bit stronger players: whereas Mr. Mills and Ms. Dana Kelley (viola) provided nice contributions in their solo moments, I was far less impressed by the solos of the always reliable Mr. Lutzke (cello), whose sound this time was strangely devoid of bloom. Maybe an established string quartet would provide a better complement to Mr. Hamelin’s radiant piano part. He impressed with his round, clear, well‑articulated tone: while it was powerful it never deteriorated to be harsh or overpowering.

In the first movement, there was enough flexibility of pulse–here Brahms demands of players a bit of surging ahead and moments of relaxation–but probably even more intensity of forging ahead, as it would be later in the Scherzo, which in moments sounded borderline nervous. In listening to that movement, I often wonder if those figures of a long note and a triplet should or should not have any resemblance or likeness to a similar, if slower, motif in Scherzo of Beethoven’s Symphony No.5. I would prefer for all involved a bit tighter rein and more enunciation of the said triplet: it gives the music a much needed gravitas.

I just loved the lilting, easy‑going Andante un poco Adagio with its on‑the‑sleeve lyricism of the pianist but still wanting involvement of string in the ardent closing moments. Any listener or critic has a list of places in any piece of music that have to be played–or sang–his preferred way. In the Brahms Piano Quintet, such pet peeve is the beginning of the coda, when the rhythm changes into triplets. More often than not, string players play these opening triplet‑figures wrongly and only the piano entrance corrects that deformity. Here I was very pleased to hear those notorious triplets played in a manner that they were written.

To summarize, it was an exciting, youthful, energetic performance by a group of highly professional players, who adroitly joined with a formidable pianist, who obviously had his idea how that work should sound. Mr. Hamelin once again proved not only his keyboard mastery, something that in his case we take for granted, but proved himself to be a wonderful musician as well as assertive and attentive chamber player. Unfortunately, we hear him in NY far too seldom so great thanks are in order for the artistic administration of the Orchestra of St. Luke’s for giving us that chance to hear him in that role.

Roman Markowicz



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