The Emerson String Quartet teamed up with pianist Evgeny Kissin for a lively performance at Symphony Center on Sunday. The pairing combined the Emersons’ wizened experience with Kissin’s vigor.
Having performed together for over 40 years, the New York City-based Emerson String Quartet has achieved a level of sophistication and polish unmatched by any of their rivals. One of the reasons behind their success is that the violinists switch chairs for different works in each concert. This unusual practice allows the two violinists to play lead as first violin half of the time; then they play follower as the second violin the other half of the time. Lately, they have been performing standing up, with the exception of the cello, which has to be seated. This time everyone was seated.
For many years, Russian pianist Evgeny Kissin was the rising young star of the piano world. Now in his late 40s, he is not so young any more. Having performed internationally since the age of 13 in 1985, Kissin has a ton of experience and has earned a reputation for bold and fiery playing, which he has amply demonstrated in his recitals at Symphony Center.
The first work on the program was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Piano Quartet No. 1 in g-minor, K.478. With his friend and mentor Franz Josef Haydn, Mozart was the preeminent composer of his age, yet he almost always housed his marvelous creations within musical forms created by others. Unlike Haydn, Mozart rarely invented whole new musical constructs. One exception was the piano quartet, which combined a piano with a violin, viola, and cello. Mozart composed two works for this combo, in 1785-86. (Strangely, in one of music’s more interesting coincidences, around the same time that Mozart invented the piano quartet form, the 15-year old Ludwig van Beethoven composed three piano quartets of his own while still residing in his birthplace of Bonn, 500 miles from Mozart’s home of Vienna.)
On Sunday afternoon, Kissin, violinist Philip Setzer, violist Lawrence Dutton, and cellist Paul Watkins gave a rousing if slightly flawed rendition of Mozart’s g-minor quartet. From the opening, attention was immediately focused on Kissin, who played with his usual flair. The problem was an imbalance between him and the strings, which didn’t sound powerful enough up in the left balcony. Things eventually evened themselves out as the work progressed. In any case, the performers individually were great. Setzer and Dutton played off each well in the opening movement, at a point where Watkins gave the cello a measured, backing role. Kissin played precisely.
In contrast to the first two movements, the finale is very fun and uplifting, in keeping with Mozart’s typical practice of following every moment of tension with something light and airy. This movement has the feel of a concerto grosso, with the piano and string trio trading musical phrases back and forth. With ensemble balance having been achieved, it worked marvelously. Mozart has an undeserved reputation for ease and simplicity, yet no composer reveals bad playing faster than Mozart does. Notwithstanding early issues, this was a good performance.
The next work on the program was Piano Quartet No. 1 in c-minor, op. 15, by Gabriel Fauré, a French composer from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. When he wrote the piece in the 1876-79 timeframe, Fauré was on the cusp between traditional tonalities in the late romantic era and more modern tonalities that came to the fore in the 20th Century. While scored in a traditional key, several passages of this work stray into unfamiliar sounds and distant dissonances.
This opening movement, in traditional sonata form, opens stormily with all instruments contributing, but it quickly transitions into a more reflective reverie, a mood that persists through the end of the opening and most of the middle section. During this time, each stringed instrument has a moment to shine melodically. In keeping with the Emerson’s usual practice of violinists switching roles, Eugene Drucker took the stage, and he, Dutton, and Watkins played well off each other. During these sections, the piano takes a largely backing role, with Kissin ably providing arpeggiated chords, dexterous rills, and soft runs.
The third movement is a mournful and slow piece that featured some of the finest music making of the afternoon. The instruments blended wonderfully and sounded with precise assurance. Long, slow movements like this can bog down, but this performance was riveting from start to finish.
The second half of the concert was devoted to a single work, Piano Quintet No. 2 in A-major, op. 81 by Antonín Dvořák. This Czech composer from the second half of the 19th Century has a large repertoire of chamber music that boasts many top-notch works, but he seems to get less time on programs than he deserves. One of Dvořák’s best chamber works is this second Piano Quintet, which is a big improvement over his first, a very early piece that shares the same A-major key.
Dvořák’s second piano quintet, form 1887, offers a glimpse of many facets of this composer. Particularly noteworthy is the second movement, a long piece in the form of a Dumka, a musical construct from Slavic folk tradition that combines long, slow, soulful melodies broken up by periods of rapid levity. Dvorak Incorporated this form into many of his works, most notably in his fourth and final Piano Trio, the so-called Dumky Trio, which is comprised of five Dumka movements.
This Quintet features the pairing of the individual stringed instruments with the piano, starting right from the beginning, with Kissin playing quiet piano passages overlaid by the cello with Watkins offering the correct charm and finesse. This is soon sped up with all instruments entering in force.
The quintet allowed both violinists into the action, with Setzer on first and Drucker on second, and the performance showed off the duration of experience the Emerson String Quartet brings to the stage. Having played together for four decades, they interacted marvelously off one another and provided a compelling compliment to Kissin, who passionately swept through the very challenging piano part. One instance was the opening of the Dumka, where Dutton’s viola sang the melody as the other instruments softly backed him up.
After three rousing and deserved ovations, the ensemble returned for an encore, the third movement of Schostakovich’s Piano Quintet. It is rare to hear encores in these circumstances, and this was a wonderful bonus.
Evgeny Kissin returns to the Symphony Center with a solo recital on Sunday, May 13, 2018, 3:00 pm. In addition to preludes by Rachmaninov, he will be playing Beethoven’s titanic Hammerklavier sonata. For more information, check out Evgeny Kissin at Symphony Center.