July 13, 2022

PU Summer Chamber Concerts Continues Series with Manhattan Chamber Players

By Nancy Plum

The piano quartet is an unusual form of music. Leaving out the second violin part of the string quartet, piano quartets create opportunities for unusual combinations of musical colors and timbres from violin, viola, cello, and keyboard. The performance collective known as Manhattan Chamber Players sent a “subset” of its musical roster to Richardson Auditorium last Friday night to present two piano quartets demonstrating the quick evolution and popularity of the form.

As Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was reaching his compositional peak in the 1780s, the piano was in its infancy — mostly appearing in concerti and salon pieces. There was little use of the instrument in chamber music, and when Mozart was commissioned to write a set of piano quartets, the first was deemed “too difficult” by the publisher. Little did the composer know that the form would take off in the 19th century, and the two quartets not successful in his lifetime would later become quite popular.

The ensemble of musicians from Manhattan Chamber Players presented the second of Mozart’s two piano quartets Friday night. Violinist Brendan Speltz, violist Luke Fleming, cellist Brook Speltz, and pianist David Fung performed Piano Quartet in E-flat Major with all the grace and elegance one would expect from Mozart, expertly mastering the virtuosity which apparently rendered the work too challenging for the average 18th-century instrumentalist.

The Manhattan Chamber Players began Mozart’s Quartet with ensemble refinement from the outset, aided by especially fluid keyboard passages from Fung. Violin and piano had a number of well-played duets, with subtle accompaniment from viola and cello. Brendan Speltz and Fleming played well-tuned intervals between violin and viola in the first movement, while the second movement Larghetto was marked by clarity from the piano. The string instruments played a bit of musical tag in the closing movement, while Fung skillfully maneuvered fiendish piano lines. Throughout this movement, the piano dared the strings to supply elegant answers to its musical “questions.”

By the time of Robert Schumann’s 1842 Piano Quartet in E-flat Major, the genre was complex and fully formed. Schumann tended to compose in one repertoire category at a time; he spent an extended period composing primarily for the piano, and then a year writing songs. The year 1842 was his “year of chamber music,” and this second of Schumann’s piano quartets was a solid representation of the composer’s lush Romantic instrumental writing.

The Chamber Players opened Schumann’s Quartet with immediate richness, playing the sprightly “Allegro” with spirit and joy. The players shifted well between hymn-like and animated sections, effectively bringing out the 19th-century drama. Pianist Fung and cellist Brook Speltz were well tested with quick passages in the second movement “Scherzo,” as Fung consistently ended phrases gracefully.

A lush cello melody from Brook Speltz marked the third movement “Andante,” as all players emphasized the cantabile aspects of the songlike movement. Violist Fleming also had a chance to show off pastoral melodic lines in duet passages with violinist Brendan Speltz.

Sandwiched between the two piano quartets was a rarely-heard chamber work of 20th-century Hungarian composer Ernst von Dohnányi. A brilliant pianist and child prodigy, Dohnányi was a towering figure in Hungarian classical music in the years before World War II but stayed away from the folk traditions that influenced his contemporaries. Dohnányi’s multi-movement Serenade in C Major for string trio gave the Chamber Players an opportunity to explore different musical textures within an intimate combination of chamber instruments. Whereas Mozart’s Quartet centered the most technically difficult writing around the piano, Dohnányi spread virtuosic writing throughout all the players’ parts in the Serenade.

From the first movement Marcia, violinist Brendan Speltz, violist Fleming, and cellist Brook Speltz paid great attention to variety in dynamics, even with quick-moving lines. Fleming played an especially elegant melody in the second movement Romanza against delicate pizzicati from the other two instruments. Dohnányi’s piece showed progressive harmonies which were effectively brought out by the players, with changes in musical character well handled. An ode to Beethoven’s string trios with 20th-century harmonic twists, this work was a successful bridge between the two piano quartets, allowing the audience to settle back into the 19th-century as the rich writing of Schumann closed the concert.

Princeton University Summer Chamber Concerts concludes is 2022 season on Thursday, July 21 with a performance by the Zodiac Trio at 7:30 p.m. in Richardson Auditorium. This program will include music by Piazzolla, Stravinsky, and Gershwin, among other composers. Tickets are free and are available a week before the performance at tickets.princeton.edu.