Fauré Piano Quartet delivers unforgettable performance in Palm Beach

By Greg Stepanich

If you make regular rounds of the many chamber music performances available during the season, you’re going to encounter a wide range of good-to-excellent concerts, that will make you happy you’ve attended.

But every once in a while, you hear a great performance. Sunday afternoon at the Society of the Four Arts in Palm Beach, a German piano quartet named after a French composer delivered a virtually flawless reading of three chamber music works, a concert that had the large audience roaring its approval before intermission, and practically doubling that at the end.

The Fauré Piano Quartet is billed in its literature as the preeminent piano quartet in Europe, and that surely is no exaggeration. Here was a concert in which every bar of every piece bore not only the imprint of thorough practice and accomplishment, but of a unity of interpretation that had all four members––violinist Erika Geldsetzer, violist Sascha Frömbling, cellist Konstantin Heidrich and pianist Dirk Mommertz—working precisely, flexibly and marvelously as one.

The concert opened with a rarity: the Quartettsatz in A minor of Gustav Mahler, written when the composer was a 16-year-old student from the sticks at the Vienna Conservatory. It is flat-out gorgeous in a full-blooming Romantic way, with darkly beautiful, simple themes enmeshed in a matrix of high emotion that crests in a manner presaging the near-hysteria of some of the mature Mahler’s pages.

From Mommertz’s first steady, hushed repeated major thirds to the nearly inaudible plagal cadence at the end, the Fauré Quartet set a mood of yearning, mystery and strength. One of the critical attributes of the quartet’s approach is its full use of dynamic range; here in the Mahler, the repeat of the first section was just as enthralling as the initial reading because the extremely soft opening, which later builds to a rich forte, seizes the ear’s attention all over again for a return journey.

The piece climbs to a huge climax, with the piano scored at the absolute thunderous bottom of its register, providing another good demonstration of why it’s important to make sure you have some place to go with your softs and louds, and there is, too, a short, violent violin cadenza. Geldsetzer played this with big, nervous power, a much-needed release of energy from the dramatic buildup around her. All you could do was wish Mahler had written the rest of the piece; as it stands, it certainly deserves to be a regular repertory work.

The quartet’s namesake, Gabriel Fauré, wrote two fine piano quartets; the group played the first of these (in C minor, Op. 15), written in 1879. One notable aspect of the performance, on display throughout the concert, was the smooth sheen that the foursome gave to the music. This was an ensemble sound that was lovingly and carefully shaped.

Again, from opening to closing, this was a seamless, cohesive reading; each movement, no matter how different in tempo and style, sounded entirely like it belonged with its siblings. The first movement’s main theme had virility and sweep, and an admirably light and witty touch on the second. This is a very difficult work for the pianist, but Mommertz (who frequently looked over at Geldsetzer to keep things on track) never overpowered his partners; everything in his ensemble work was almost underplayed, and it worked beautifully.

The second movement of this piece is almost non-stop for the pianist, who must bubble away on glittering run after run, but Mommertz made it sound natural and simple, and the three string players answered with a delicious, smile-making rendition of the near-salon muted-strings secondary theme. In the Adagio, the quartet expertly brought off the seething restlessness that underlies a movement that begins with such simple tonic-key sobriety, and in the finale, the climbing-scale main theme was played with polished ensemble, growing steadily and perfectly in volume to its peak.

What the quartet did most in this piece was take Fauré at his athletic word. This is a piece of great originality and youthful vigor, and while the group’s command of ensemble dynamics was astonishing and its feel for delicate textures exceptional, it never once retreated to a Proust’s drawing room kind of Fauré; he was a composer of grit and muscle, and this was an interpretation that was entirely faithful to his aesthetic.

The second half of the program was devoted to the Piano Quartet No. 1 (in G minor, Op. 25) of Brahms, perhaps the most well-known work in this genre. This was about as ideal a performance of this work as I have heard; it had everything you want in a great Brahms performance, down to the crispness of his hemiolas, which here were absolutely accurate and gave the music that inner kick Brahms was so fond of.

Mommertz began the quartet as simply, quietly and movingly as he could, setting the stage for an almost reverent and severely Classical statement of the opening theme by the strings. The second half of that opening was nearly ethereal in its tenderness, only to be swept away by the semi-concerto that followed, played here with gusto and fire.

The second movement Intermezzo, which begins with a murmur in the cello and trio work unaccompanied by the piano, began so stealthily and yet matter-of-factly that it seemed less to start than it did to simply tap into music that was already there. The Fauré also made sure that the eighth-note pulse was prominent all the way through, never losing its urgency even in the more reflective passages, with the result that the coda was sheer gossamer, evaporating with a glimmer.

The slow movement rarely sits still, and neither did this performance of it, which had a middle section of tremendous excitement. The Gypsy finale was sheer crowd-pleaser, with a very fleet tempo, brilliant piano work, and clear distinctions between the various thematic materials: it was, in short, like this entire terrific concert, first-rate in every conceivable way.

Greg Stepanich is the founder of Palm Beach ArtsPaper. He also writes for The Miami Herald and Palm Beach Daily News, and works as a freelance editor.

Posted in Performances

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Mon Jan 25, 2010
at 8:12 pm
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