Friday, February 20, 2009

Music review: Mozart foursome exemplary in canonical program

From left: Mark Gothoni, Paul Rivinius, Hartmut Rodhe
and Peter Hoerr.

By Greg Stepanich

LAKE WORTH -- Although much of the activity in today's classical music world is spent in pursuit of the new or the old but overlooked, it's always nice to check in on the canon and see that it's doing just fine.

The Mozart Piano Quartet, a foursome of performers and academics who work in Berlin and Leipzig, has the kind of solid excellence you would expect from veteran European musicians who have impressive lists of recordings and concerts to each of their names. During the group's appearance Wednesday afternoon at the Duncan Theatre, it was always clear that the audience was in the presence of musicians to whom these pieces are second nature.

The program was as core repertory as it could be, with piano quartets by Beethoven (in E-flat, Op. 16), Schumann (in E-flat, Op. 47) and Brahms (in G minor, Op. 25). Familiar as these works are, the four men -- pianist Paul Rivinius, violinist Mark Gothoni, violist Hartmut Rohde and cellist Peter Hoerr -- still found stores of surprise and fresh insight buried within.

As perhaps befits a chamber music ensemble that specializes in piano quartets, it was pianist Rivinius who made the biggest impression Wednesday. Playing works by composers who were at one time or another first-class pianists themselves, Rivinius had a lot to work with, and he acquitted himself beautifully.

The Beethoven quartet that opened the concert -- the three works were played in chronological order, after a last-minute switch to the program that originally called for the Schumann to be played last -- is one of the composer's earlier works, and is an arrangement of a quintet for piano and winds. Yet aside from the Haydnesque cast of its melodies, it's a progressive work that bears the definitive stamp of its creator.

And so this was a performance that emphasized Beethoven's confident youthful swagger. Textures were kept clear so that the music could speak for itself at its most Beethovenian, such as the brutal, almost grinding transition to the relative minor at the beginning of the development section. In general, the three string players, who sat in a semicircle with Hoerr in the middle, constantly looking at each other for cues, laid back and blended with the piano in concerto style rather than engaging in combat.

That made them a trio unto themselves at points such as their entrance in the second movement after the piano solo with which the section begins; at this point, the players opened up some more, taking center stage over soft arpeggios in the piano with rich, soulful playing. In the finale, Rivinius played with sparkle and fire, showing why this piece makes a good demonstration vehicle for the keyboardist.

The Schumann quartet, written nearly 50 years after the Beethoven, offers its four players more opportunities to shine. The third-movement Andante cantabile was particularly notable in this respect, as Hoerr sang out the lovely main theme of the movement with plenty of hearfelt Romanticism, to be followed by Gothoni doing the very same thing. The middle section of the movement also had a good hushed sound from the four musicians that made a very effective contrast with the big, songful cast of the primary material.

The same attention to clear texture and good balance was evident here as it was in the Beethoven, and while the piano still tended to dominate matters in the outer movements, the whispering chatter of the second movement had a gripping sort of tense excitement, and there was good playing all around with the racing contrapuntal fabric of the finale.

Brahms' G minor quartet, the first of three he wrote, is, like the Beethoven a relatively early work, but also is quite distinctive enough for the voice of its composer to be heard. Rivinius began the quartet in a manner faithful to the score but somewhat unusually in my experiences of hearing this piece in concert: Quietly and moodily, unlike the soft but stentorian marching I often encounter.

This added a welcome touch of mystery and growth to the first bars, so that the first climactic rendering of the theme several bars later was explosive and thrilling. The Intermezzo that followed was taken at a good fast clip and remained light on its feet, which let the fragmented melody dip in and out of the texture with an athletic glimmer.

The middle of the slow movement presented the only real chances of the day to be unaccompanied by the piano, and the three players plainly relished their brief strings-only ensemble work, never losing the string of Brahms' powerful emotional argument. For the Gypsy-flavored finale, which had much of the audience bobbing their heads along with the beat, energy and high spirits were the order of the day, even after violist Rohde had to stop the proceedings halfway through to replace a broken string.

Repairs made, the quartet began the movement again, heads began to move, and the group built to a joyous, breathless conclusion in accurate, committed and intense style. All in all, it was an object lesson in musical excellence that helped explain why it is that audiences still hold these pieces dear so many years after they were introduced.

The San Francisco-based Cypress String Quartet continues the Duncan chamber music series at 3 p.m. Friday, March 6, with the Mendelssohn Quartet No. 2 (in A minor, Op. 13), Beethoven’s last string quartet (in F, Op. 135), and a quartet by the contemporary American composer Kevin Puts. Tickets: $20. Call 868-3309 or visit

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