An ad hoc chamber group can sometimes be more interesting to listen to than a full-time professional quartet. With the latter, you get glossy perfection, with every detail planned in the course of endless hours of rehearsal. But when local artists get together and prepare a program for a single performance, you can feel the drama and spontaneity that was part of the 19th-century musical environment.
The drama was evident in the penultimate concert of the Early Romantics Festival on Saturday, in which the principal string players from the Santa Rosa Symphony and pianist Mack McCray presented quartets by Schumann and piano works by Chopin and Liszt.
Schumann's Op. 41 string quartet is not well known, and bears witness to the fact that the composer was still in the process of learning the quartet idiom. The performers gave it a wonderful, silky texture in which the individual voices (particularly the rich and resonant sounds of violist Linda Ghidossi-DeLuca and cellist Wanda Warkentin) blended well but could also be heard as individuals, rising to the surface momentarily and submerging again with the flow of the music.
The group struggled with some of Schumann's more impractical ideas, such as the extended passage in which all the notes are offbeats, and the finale, where unidiomatic passagework accompanied by rapid offbeats necessitated a restart. First violinist Joseph Edelberg handled it adroitly, though: In a witty play on McCray's earlier comments that Schumann's rhythmic displacements often made it hard to find the beat, he quipped, "This is not what Mr. McCray had in mind."
The Growth of Virtuosity
Between the two Schumann works (as usual in this festival, there was no intermission), McCray said a few words, recalling the Mendelssohn Lieder ohne Wörter
he played last time, to show how the cult of virtuosity grew with Chopin and then Liszt — or, as he put it, "from Felix to Fred to Frank." Playing from memory, he gave Chopin's Berceuse
(Op. 57) and Barcarolle
(Op. 60) an elasticity and warmth that recalled the intimate nature of the salon environment for which they were written. The highlight of the set was Liszt's Valse-caprice
from Soirées de Vienne,
based on two waltzes by Schubert. McCray played the waltz themes with the crispness and sweetness of Schubert and the rest with the exuberant virtuosity of Liszt.
Schumann's Op. 41 string quartet and Op. 47 piano quartet were written within six months of each other. Yet the piano quartet sounds far more assured, due to the growth in the composer's knowledge of the medium, as well as the addition of his own instrument, the piano, with the intent that the part would be played by his wife, one of the leading virtuosi of their day. In this performance, the audience was privileged to see how chamber music groups adapt. The group had a shaky start, but Warkentin and McCray soon locked the cello and the piano left hand together into a firm foundation, then McCray and Edelberg started to work together to stretch the climaxes and cadences.
What kicked the performance into high gear was the action of Warkentin and McCray at the start of the Scherzo. Rather than taking a conservative approach to tempo after the earlier mishap, they lit into the Molto vivace opening with fearlessness and ferocity. The third movement, one of Schumann's most beautiful melodies, was taken at a rather brisk tempo that delivered sentiment rather than sentimentality.
At the end of the movement, the composer, somewhat impractically, requires the cellist to detune the low C string during a brief rest in order to play the final B-flat pedal tone. Warkentin, trying to do this silently by counting the turns on her fine-tuner, ended up too sharp but recovered quickly by giving the note an octave higher an unusual amount of warmth and resonance: a clever adjustment that avoided disrupting a fine performance. The finale, which starts with a rousing Romantic-era fugue, brought the evening to a close.
The Early Romantics Festival concludes with a performance of Berlioz' Symphonie fantastique
(including a lecture by UCLA Professor Robert Winter) on April 28 at 8 p.m. in the Wells Fargo Center for the Arts in Santa Rosa.