Celebrating its 40th anniversary, The American String Quartet, joined by world-renowned pianist Anton Nel, ascended to heights of musical brilliance in a Saturday performance for Syracuse Friends of Chamber Music. Playing Mozart, Brahms and Schumann in the refurbished and acoustically first-rate H. W. Smith auditorium, the artists were heard at their best, providing a memorable evening for the sponsoring group, which has promoted chamber music locally since 1949.
Musicians in the ensemble - Peter Winograd and founding member Laurie Carney, violins; Daniel Avshalomov, viola, and Wolfram Koessel, cello - epitomize the unity and artistic confidence demonstrated by long-time collaborators. Their outstanding communication was evident right from the start of the leisurely opening movement of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's String Quartet in C-major, nicknamed "The Disonant" for its slow, incremental, unharmonious opening. First, the cello is heard, then viola, second violin and, lastly, the first violin, all entering in dissonance until the music, at length, resolves into the bright C-major of the dominant key.
Winograd, playing first violin, shines in the second, lyrical F-major movement along with cellist Koessel, and Winograd introduces the chromatic themes in the minuet of the third movement. The work, Mozart's final quartet in a set of six completed in 1785, moves to a spirited finale, which the ensemble presents with joyful energy.
Johannes Brahms referred to his 1875 composition, the final quartet in a set of three, as "a useless trifle." But the musicians proved the String Quartet in B-flat major to be more delightful than useless as it flowed with charm and playfulness. From the hunting call and lively rhythms of the first movement, to the lyricism of the second movement, through the beautifully rendered third movement, played exquisitely on the viola with other instruments muted, to the variations of the finale, the Brahms served as a delicious dessert to the first half of the program.
After intermission, Nel, winner of the Naumburg International Piano Competition and highly acclaimed guest performer, joined Winograd, Carney, Avshalomov and Koessel on Robert Schumann's 1842 Piano Quintet in E-flat major, a quintessentially Romantic masterpiece that demands fearless implementation on the part of the performers. Nel, who leads the keyboard program at University of Texas at Austin, is intrepid in his interpretation of this piece, in which the piano is the dominant instrument.
Schumann calls for radiance in the first movement, "Allegro Brillante," and Nel provides it, sending ray upon ray of light tumbling forth from the keys. His sensitivity to the strings maintains perfect balance throughout the piece, which moves from the warmth and virtuosic piano runs off the first movement to a sober funeral march in the second.
Nel explores every possible nuance of intensity in the third movement, a glorification of scales, running up and down the keyboard and echoing on the strings. In the muscular opening of the final movement, Nel clearly defined every note, and the strings accompanied with vibrant strength, taking respite in a brief melody, then dashing to a powerful finale that inspired the audience to an immediate standing ovation.
This performance was a high point in Central New York chamber music programming and an encouragement to attend the remaining concerts in the SFCM season.