Tucked away in the mountains of western Virginia is Garth Newel Music Center, a gem of a place for lovers of chamber music repertoire. Located just up the road from the iconic Homestead Resort in Hot Springs, Garth Newel draws audiences from near and far throughout the year. Its program is unique in that it’s one of the very few independent music centers in America with a full-time resident piano quartet. And whereas many programs go on hiatus during the summer months – or at least scale back their activities – Garth Newel is just the opposite, with a full range of events on offer through the entire summer season.

Beach's <i>Quintet in F sharp minor</i> at the Garth Newel Music Center © Sara Carey
Beach's Quintet in F sharp minor at the Garth Newel Music Center
© Sara Carey

A case in point were the performances presented at Garth Newel this weekend – events on successive days exploring the rich chamber music heritage of the Romantic period. Dubbed “Classic Masterpieces I”, the first day's offering included two significant chamber works by Antonin Dvořák and Amy Marcy Cheney Beach – a string sextet and a piano quintet.

Beach's Quintet in F sharp minor for piano and strings opened the program. Composed in 1908, it's an important creation – one that garnered more than 40 public performances during the composer's lifetime but then disappeared from the repertoire until the 1970s. Observers have noted the Quintet's affinity with Brahms' Piano Quintet in F minor, with which Beach was familiar having performed the piano part for that piece in recital earlier in the decade. I wouldn't characterize Beach's creation as derivative of Brahms, although it does share some of the latter’s “weightiness” – and there are also hints of Brahms' final movement theme that crop up in various places in the Beach Quintet.

For this performance, several participants in Garth Newel’s Emerging Artist Fellows program joined veteran members of the Garth Newel Piano Quartet, and the result was mostly satisfying. The strings were well-blended and the piano was also successfully integrated with the whole, even if the playing wasn’t note perfect in places.

Interpretively, the players’ conception of the music was quite effective. From the very opening piano arpeggios, one knew this wasn't going to be just any ordinary run-through. In the first movement AdagioAllegro moderato, after a pensive introduction the main themes were presented by each of the strings. I was particularly impressed with the interplay between the instruments which runs throughout this extensive movement – at times very forcefully. The Adagio espressivo that followed introduced a theme of poignant beauty. The dynamics of this movement rarely rose above mezzo forte, and yet in this performance it became the emotional high-point of the Quintet. In the final movement, Allegro agitato, muscular strings delivered the cascading musical ideas incisively, leading back to the reprise of the Quintet’s introduction before concluding with a flourish. In all, it was a performance delivered with conviction.

Dvorak's <i>String Sextet in A Major</i> at the Garth Newel Music Center © Sara Carey
Dvorak's String Sextet in A Major at the Garth Newel Music Center
© Sara Carey

Following the intermission, it was on to Dvořák's String Sextet in A Major. Here as well, a number of Garth Newel's Emerging Artist Fellows joined in the performance. The Sextet is important among Dvořák's compositions in that it was the first of his music to be premiered outside Bohemia. The extensive piece is in four movements and in its character – at least in three of the movements – the Sextet isn't far removed from the Slavonic Dances and Slavonic Rhapsodies which were created by the composer roughly at the same time (the late 1870s).

In the opening movement, Allegro, which is laid out in sonata form, a poignant theme was introduced which then went through an extended development, during which we were treated to some really wonderful blended strains – particularly noteworthy being the cellos and violas. The two inner movements of the Sextet – described by the composer as a dumka and a furiant – are indeed stylizations of these folk-inspired musical types. Slavic color was on full display in the dumka, and the furiant had all the frisson one could hope to hear, with sharp attacks and exciting interplay all-around.

The final movement of the Sextet is a theme and variations. In contrast to much of the rest of the work, it is more meditative in its character – at least up to the final variation. In some performances I’ve heard, the movement can seem somewhat removed emotionally from the rest of the Sextet. No such worries here, as the players treated each of the variations as its own special adventure. Great ensemble and the ability to toss the melodic lines effortlessly from one player to the next were moments that were really quite special.

Two worthwhile performances, then – the infrequently encountered Beach in a commendable presentation, plus a fine Dvořák that showcased the genius of that composer at his academic, folkloric and genial best.