April 2, 2011
By Steven Woodruff
The Colburn Chamber Music Society series concluded its innovative programming for the year with Menahem Pressler and Colburn students in a concert for piano and strings. The program included Mozart’s E-flat Piano Quartet, K. 493 and the Dvorá k Piano Quintet in A Major. The year, beginning with the Tokyo String Quartet, has been wildly successful and I, for one, hope that we are going to see the model remain as part of the music scene at Colburn. For those of you who have missed the action, each of the concerts has paired luminaries in the chamber music firmament with Colburn students and occasionally faculty, to explore some of the bigger works that lie outside the standard quartet or wind repertory. The concerts have included the Mendelssohn Octet, the Mozart Gran Partita, and all of the Brandenburg Concertos among others.
There is so much about the Colburn Series that is worth mentioning. The ten dollar tickets are more than affordable, the playing as been exceptional and you couldn’t ask for a better venue than Zipper Hall for chamber music, short of commandeering a gold-leafed great hall in Prague or Salzburg. And the connection and appreciation among the musicians and across the age divide has provided its own sort of inspiration. With this concert we are reminded that it has been chamber music pioneers like Pressler with the Beaux Arts Trio and others of that generation, such as the original Busch, Budapest, and Juilliard Quartets, who have made the touring chamber music ensemble a professional reality of today’s concert and recording scene.
In reading through some of Pressler’s recent comments about playing music, I was moved by one of his statements. He mentioned his hunger for music. When he plays you feel it and you can also see that he is communicating that hunger to those he plays with. I have been lucky to hear a number of musicians of Pressler’s stature in concert. Nathan Milstein, Stephan Grappelli, Mstislav Rostropovich and Rudolf Serkin are those that immediately come to mind. They all played with stylishness and an easy authority that you could believe in. But whether it’s eighty- something or twenty-something, it has been the emphasis on the playing and the equality of spirit that has given us so much vibrant music making all year long.
The music on Saturday was all about the slow movement. In the Mozart (Larghetto) and the Dvorá k (Dumka: Andante con moto), the slow movements are the emotional centers. Add to that the Andante, un poco adagio from the Brahms Piano Quintet F-minor op. 34 which was played as an encore and you get a good sense of the concert’s arc. There was no intermission, only a brief pause to change musicians for the piano quintet but it was clearly Mr. Pressler who was the evening’s quiet engine.
The Mozart, leaning heavily on the more prominent role of the piano, soared in Pressler’s hands. The quartet is structured as a dialogue between the keyboard and the strings as a group. Always extremely tasteful and full of classical clarity, the three movement work glowed with the piano’s bell like quality in the second movement. The strings played with an elegiac quality that made the most of the Larghetto’s shifting tonalities and frequent cadences in the relative minor. The relaxed tempo and uncomplicated statement of the motivic little tune that dominates the final Allegretto was full of classical style and Mozart at his most playful. The instrumentalists were violinist Danielle Belén, violist Yi Zhou and cellist Indira Rahmatulla.
The Dumka came across with all of the dreamy quality it deserved. It’s quirky, other worldly harmonies and complex shifting moods flowed without hesitation. A vigilant Pressler often played from memory, here and throughout the piece, while reaching out to the ensemble and putting a chiming, faraway touch on the movement’s opening melody. The opening theme of the quintet’s first movement always reminds me of the American folk tune, Shall We Gather at the River, that is until it finally veers down a dark melodic corridor. The quintet’s folk inspirations remain more faux than fact, but that melody and other moments make you wonder whether the germ for the Symphony from the New World and the F Major Quartet was not already loose in the composer’s mind, even prior to his Iowa sojourn. The ensemble made the work seem more balanced than its front loaded structure indicates. In the end, the playing felt more like one uninterrupted statement than four separate movements. The ensemble included faculty cellist Ronald Leonard, violinists Hugh Palmer and Ryan Meehan, and violist Christopher Zack.
The evening finished with the yearning, pulsing rhythms of the Andante from the Brahms Piano Quintet. And after a program that was already complete Mr. Pressler seemed eager for more. Why stop when the hunger for music is on your side!