The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center — under the auspices of [email protected]’s Winter Series — performed a seamless concert of music by Beethoven, Dohnányi and Dvořák on Sunday, February 11 at the Schultz Cultural Arts Hall, The Oshman Family JCC, Palo Alto. The fluid versatility of the quartet of principals — Gilles Vonsattel, piano; Arnaud Sussmann, violin; Paul Neubauer, viola; and Paul Watkins, cello — seemed to increase in color and passionate fire as the evening progressed. The concert ended with an encore of pure old-world charm, as violist Neubauer literally strolled among members of the audience playing Hermann Schulenburg’s Puszta-Marchen (Gypsy Romance and Czardas), while his complementary players remained on stage. It reminded me of a Paris café scene from a movie starring Paul Henreid and Hedy Lamarr.
The concert began with Beethoven’s Piano Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 16 (1796), originally set as a piano quintet with woodwinds. Beethoven rescored the work so that the strings could exploit their sonorous capacity for double and triple stops. The heady Grave opening of the first movement soon yielded to a melody that was a near cousin to Zerlinas aria from Mozart’s Don Giovanni, “Batti, batti, o bel Masetto.” Vonsattel’s silken treble passages soon became standard fare and reminded us that Beethoven took pleasure in displaying his own keyboard virtuosity. The intimacy of the occasion emerged with the serene intensity of the second movement, Andante cantabile, with its often rhapsodic lyricism in the form of a rondo. That the instrumentalists savored their own sound became both obvious and infectious, with nods and cues between Sussmann and Neubauer, Watkins and Vonsattel. The concluding rondo galloped in the manner of opera buffa, simultaneously jocular and improvisational. What most impressed us was the total mastery of the performance.
Ernö von Dohnányi ‘s C Major Serenade, Op. 10 for Violin, Viola, and Cello (1904) presents a hybrid work created the year of Dvořák’s death and the debut of Mahler’s A Minor Symphony. Looking backwards, the piece embraces Mozart and Haydn’s instrumental serenades, or more specifically, Mozart’s grand Divertimento K. 563 in E-flat Major. Looking more contemporaneously, the piece fixes upon the Brahms penchant for counterpoint, cross-fertilized by 20th Century, national chromatic harmony. The gypsy affect of the opening Marcia: Allegro came to us loud and clear, courtesy of cellist Paul Watkins. Neubauer and Watkins lent a melancholy cast to the ensuing Romanza, while the Scherzo’s unrelenting 6/8 in slithery metric pulses could be nervously expressive, a kind of Hungarian parody of Mendelssohn. The fourth movement, a theme with five variants, allotted lovely episodes to each of the string principals, with frequent extensions of the original melody. The finale, a Rondo: Allegro assai, frolicked with moto perpetuo double stops and chains of scale passages, in which Neubauer sailed while his companions lent bagpipe effects. The soaring melody just prior to the coda warranted the price of admission.
The formal concert concluded with Dvořák’s 1889 Piano Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 87, composed in a blistering period of creativity in five weeks, between July and August. Besides having absorbed compositional techniques from Beethoven and Schubert, Dvorak enjoyed a prolific imagination that embraced his Bohemian culture with a fierce passion. Opening Allegro con fuoco, the first chords from Vonsattel knocked us, the audience, back about five feet. Both grandly dramatic and moodily chromatic, the first movement displayed a militant, “orchestral” drive that could become whimsical in a moment. Neubauer, sporting Dvořák’s chosen instrument, intoned the lovely second subject. The Lento proffered five distinct themes, not the least of which featured Vonsattel’s now mesmerizing keyboard transparencies. The fourth theme resonated with a grand passion.
Most inventive, the Allegro moderato, grazioso — after another startling opening chord — gave us an affected waltz, colored by Moorish, oriental influences: Dvořák by way of Borodin. Vonsattel’s nimble fingers wandered into the piano’s high registers, imitating the Slavic cimbalom. The expansive Finale: Allegro ma non troppo certainly resounded in a “symphonic” manner, with cellist Watkins’ more than once seeming to prepare for the B Minor Cello Concerto. Neubauer’s lush viola playing provided the lyric counterpoint to the declamatory unison passages that urged relentlessly forward. Given Schubert’s “lessons” for syncopating competing themes, Dvořák had us enchanted with his fusion of motor power and facile, charming scoring, here realized with a deft schwung that quite carried us away — a knockout blow that had us standing in awed appreciation.