Fort Worth — The quintet genre—or, more specifically, the quintet for piano and strings—took the spotlight Saturday afternoon in an exhilaratingly fine concert by the Chamber Music Society of Fort Worth at the Renzo Piano Pavilion of the Kimbell Art Museum.
One new example of the genre—the Quintet by Pierre Jalbert of the faculty of Rice University, which premiered in Tucson in March 2017—dominated the first half of the program, while one of the towering monuments of the genre, Brahms’ Quintet in F minor, held center stage in the second half.
This pairing of old and new highlighted several intriguing aspects of the genre. At a mere 176 years, the piano quintet is the youngest of the standard chamber genres: it wasn’t until 1842, with multitudes of trios, quartets, and duos already in the repertoire, that Brahms’ elder friend Robert Schumann invented the concept of combining a piano with a string quartet.
The piano quintet genre also remains a sort of holy grail for composers: Schumann only wrote one, and his major predecessors in the genre, including Franck, Brahms, Dvořák, Arensky, Elgar, Vaughan Williams, and Shostakovich, all attempted only a single go at the combination of piano and string quartet—all the while merrily churning out whole series of quartets, sonatas, symphonies, concertos, operas, and oratorios. (To be fair, Fauré and Dohnanyi created two piano quintets each, and I’m sure there are a few other exceptions to prove the rule; in our time, Russian Nikolai Kapustin has produced a single, brilliantly jazzy contribution to the genre, which we wouldn’t mind hearing in these parts at some point.) At any rate, the grandeur of the combination of full string quartet with piano both attracts and, apparently, exhausts composers.
Which brings us to Jalbert’s winningly dramatic and structurally succinct foray into the honorable and challenging field of play. Dallas Symphony Orchestra senior associate principal violinist Gary Levinson, who is also the artistic director of the society, took the first violin part, with Cho-Liang Lin of the music faculty at Rice as second violinist. Michael Klotz, artist-in-residence at Florida International University, and a regular performer with the society, took the viola part, and cellist Clive Greensmith, past principal of the Royal Philharmonic in London and currently a member of the faculty of the Manhattan School of Music, filled out the string section. 2009 Cliburn Competition gold medalist Haochen Zhang served as pianist.
Within a tightly wound 21-minute work, Jalbert created a daring world of sounds and ideas. The brief opening movement, titled “Mannheim Rocket” (after a late-18th-century compositional strategy), launches the work with an energetic, pointillistic section that eases into a feverishly playful exploration of timbres and textures. The second movement, title “Kyrie” (after the opening plea for mercy of the Roman Catholic mass), features a liquid, flowing motion in the strings (and a motif suggesting, in its rhythm, the Greek text of the Catholic Kyrie). This plays against an almost bright falling motif in the piano, before moving into a majestically dark climax and a final, desolate unison.
The ensuing Scherzo—the only movement with a traditional designation—opens with a delicate, chattering figuration tossed back and forth between piano and strings. A middle section featuring a chant-like piano part with a string commentary follows, before returning to the opening chatter, which floats away in a short codetta. In the fourth and final movement, “Pulse,” the cello sets up a constant locomotion leading into a broad-ranging movement that finally flows downward to a closing D major chord, tinged with a touch of dissonance.
Needless to say, this remarkable collection of musicians gave a superb accounting of this new work, with immaculate attention to detail and a unified approach to the bold concepts therein.
Likewise, the ensemble (with the first and second violin roles traded by Lin and Levinson) gave a revelatory reading of Brahms’ Quintet—a work almost painfully familiar to Fort Worth music lovers as one of the chamber options in the Cliburn Competition. Even after hearing literally dozens of interpretations of this work through the years, this listener had the sensation of hearing it as if for the first time. Lin and Levinson immediately put an ear-catching edge on phrasing and tempo in the opening theme, picked up by their colleagues, and leading, after many entrancing adventures, to a spine-chilling intensification at the recapitulation.
Following the lingering lyricism of the Andante second movement, the glorious march theme of the Scherzo third movement emerged with blazing grandeur. And, the sostenuto introduction of the final movement—surely one of the most challenging moments in the entire repertory of chamber music for strings—came across with its potential drama and beauty completely evident, thanks to devoted attention to phrasing and articulation from each musician.
Indeed, although this was more or less an ad hoc ensemble for this concert, the group performed together with the polished unity of the great established touring ensembles, producing a breathtaking and memorable performance of a very familiar work.
The concert had opened with a Preludio, Gavotte, and Waltz by Shostakovich, drawn from film scores and incidental music and arranged by Shostakovich’s assistant Levon Atovmyan for two violins and piano. Levinson, Lin, and Zhang performed these light pieces—reminiscent at times of folk music, Dvorak, Schumann, et al.—with a perfect combination of devotion and lightness of spirit. After intermission and before the Brahms, Dvořák’s Terzetto in C for two violins and viola (here performed by Lin, Levinson, and Kotz), demonstrated Dvorak’s command of the sonorities and possibilities of the string ensemble; here, he leaned toward a workaday, almost sentimental romanticism, but with a strong dash of his Czech nationalism showing up in the third movement. The musicians brought thorough dedication and precision to this always lovely, occasionally striking score.
And so, a significant presentation of a major new chamber work by Jalbert, a radiant reading of one of the great masterpieces of the chamber repertoire by Brahms, and two appealing tidbits by Shostakovich and Dvořák added another to the long list of wonderful programs that the Chamber Music Society of Fort Worth has brought, under Levinson’s unerring guidance, to north Texas music lovers.