Enter your email address and click subscribe to receive new articles in your email inbox:

Piano Quartets Open Concerts on Clifton

Mary Ellyn Hutton
Posted: Oct 21, 2013 - 8:38:05 PM in reviews_2013

left to right: Tatiana Berman, Yael Senamaud-Cohen, Nathaniel Chaitkin and Julie Spangler

Piano quartets were on the menu for Concerts on Clifton Sunday afternoon in Scheuer Chapel at Hebrew Union College in Clifton.

And by some youngsters, too. Gustav Mahler was only 15 when he wrote his Piano Quartet in A Minor, as was Felix Mendelssohn when he produced his Piano Quartet in B Minor, Op. 3. These less-often-heard works shared the program with American composer Paul Schoenfield’s 2001 Piano Quartet: “Carolina Reveille,” a Cincinnati premiere.

The event, presented in collaboration with the 2013 Constella Festival, opened the new season of Concerts on Clifton, with Julie Spangler on piano, violinist Tatiana Berman, violist Yael Senamaud-Cohen and cellist Nathaniel Chaitkin. It made for delectable listening by the overflow crowd (which necessitated the welcome task of providing additional chairs).

The four players put lots of drama into Mahler’s one-movement Quartet (his only surviving piece of chamber music without voice and thought to have been part of a planned four-movement piano quartet). From the solemn three-note motif which opened it (and serves as a unifying device), through turbulent passages to a quiet ending, it made a deeply affecting impression.

The Mahler also offered a strong contrast to Schoenfield’s Quartet, a set of variations on “Carolina in the Morning,” which followed. It was fascinating to hear how Schoenfield built the piece, utilizing fragments of the song at the beginning, and leaving its complete statement for the end (the reverse of standard theme-and-variations treatment). Along the way, he serves up a big dose of jazz rhythms and a bit of melody, built on a motive of the song. It was quite a workout, not only for Spangler, but for all the musicians. In fact, it came to a halt briefly when Berman’s topmost string slipped off the bridge of her violin. She quickly put it back in place, however, just in time to announce the “mystery” theme at the end, to the delight of the audience.

Mendelssohn’s early piano quartet astonished professors at the Paris Conservatory even before he stunned the music world at 17 with his Overture to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” It is in four-movement form, with sharply contrasting themes in the first movement, a graceful, happy Andante, a scherzo that hints at the composer’s light-footed scherzos-to-come and a vivacious finale. The piano dominates the textures and again, Spangler astonished her listeners with a performance that was all over the keyboard, winning a hearty standing ovation at the end.