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Worthy Debut

April 8, 2005

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By Lisa Hirsch

The Bay Area is full of terrific musicians and ensembles of all stripes, and marvelous things can emerge when a new group comes together. One such ensemble, the California Piano Quartet, made a terrific debut on Friday in the Old First Concerts series at Old First Church in San Francisco. The quartet consists of Kay Stern (violin), Benjamin Simon (viola), Dana Putnam Fonteneau (cello), and Robert Schwartz (piano), all well known locally and with thriving careers. They took three sizable works, Mozart's Piano Quartet in E-flat Major, K. 493, Dohnányi's Serenade for String Trio, Op. 10, and Brahms' Piano Quartet in C Minor, Op. 60, and brought off the concert in splendid style.

K. 493 comes from the enormously productive years 1784 to 1786, during which Mozart wrote eleven piano concertos, two piano quartets, five string quartets, Le Nozze di Figaro, and a host of other works. It's a great and varied piece, of many moods and themes. The quartet has a bravura piano part that wouldn't be out of place in a piano concerto, which Schwartz played with suitable dash and sparkle. And therein lies a challenge for the performers: how to spotlight the piano without overwhelming the strings. The California Piano Quartet didn't always succeed in this; perhaps the piano should have had its lid at half-stick. Nonetheless, the beauties of the piece came through well, from the interplay of violin and viola in the first movement to the mysterious long phrases and startling progressions of the central Adagio, to the marvelous transformations of the square little main theme of the Rondo. Overall, the performance was poised and polished, if a bit too cautious.

Any hint of excessive caution disappeared completely in the Dohnányi and Brahms, both of which received passionate, gutsy performances. Perhaps the two Romantic works are better suited to the group's artistic temperament, or, more likely, perhaps the slightly cautious approach to the Mozart was just a function of its placement on a debut program.

Sui generis

The Dohnányi Serenade, a quirky five-movement work in a most individual style, opens with a highly syncopated Marcia, full of incessantly repeated rhythms. The Marcia is followed by a Romanza, in which a quiet, almost meandering viola solo, accompanied by pizzicato violin and cello, gives way to a more passionate violin solo. In turn, a gorgeous duet of violin and viola follows, before the movement fades quietly away. The Scherzo is a sinewy little chase among the three instruments, with scurrying counterpoint followed by brief unisons and a broader tune that could almost have come from Dvorák. The grim, dark tune of the Tema con Variazioni twists into increasingly dense variations, written with a fantastic variety of string textures, then closes gently. The Rondo is by turns furious, explosive, or grandiose; then the opening Marcia returns to close the work out.

Brahms started work on Op. 60 at a time when he lived in the Schumann household. Robert was then confined to a mental institution; Clara supported the family as a piano virtuoso. Brahms helped with the children and developed an obsessive love for Clara. Out of the turmoil came the first three movements of the piano quartet; twenty years later, he revised it, added a fourth movement, and finally completed the piece. Its turbulence mirrors the composer's emotional state, from the stormy and wrenching opening movement to the powerhouse Scherzo (with its brief, startling, moments of tranquility), to the repose of the andante and the driving obsessiveness of the Allegro comodo finale.

The California Piano Quartet met every demand of these complex and challenging pieces at the highest possible level, playing with tremendous command and commitment and drawing the audience deeply and completely into the music. The program notes indicate that they're looking for a better name. We can be glad they didn't wait for the ideal name to start concertizing, and look forward eagerly to future performances, under this or any other name. (Lisa Hirsch, a technical writer, studied music at Brandeis and SUNY/StonyBrook.)

©2005 Lisa Hirsch, all rights reserved