The genre of the piano quartet, though not terribly novel at first glance, is a rare one to be appreciated and perfected by permanent ensembles. There are countless string quartets on tour as well as a healthy number of piano trios and innumerable string and piano duos. This has much to do with the available literature; although there are a healthy number of works written for this particular combination, it is a fraction of what is available for other ensembles. This results in brilliant works, such as Schumann's Quartet, being relegated primarily to student ensembles fulfilling a chamber music requirement, one-off concerts where professional forces are combined for an evening involving a couple of rehearsals at best, and late salon sessions where musicians sight read through things for fun and one of the violinists supposed to play through a major piano quintet goes to bed early.

Stratos Quartett © Vipin Mayer
Stratos Quartett
© Vipin Mayer

For this reason, and many others, it was refreshing to hear a very surefooted rendition of the Schumann as well as works by Suk and Popelka on Wednesday evening in one of the four “Neue Säle” of the Musikverein performed by an up-and-coming ensemble. Violinist Katharina Engelbrecht, violist Magdalena Eber, cellist Jan Ryska and pianist Pauli Jämsä formed their group early in 2013. After immediately taking first prize at the International Brahms Competition in the category of chamber music they became the first piano quartet to be accepted into the ECMA (European Chamber Music Academy). Collaborations with a formidable list of chamber musicians soon followed, as well as plans for appearances in Wigmore Hall, the Brucknerhaus in Linz and at the Harmos Festival in Portugal.

The ensemble exploded out of the gate with the seldom-performed Piano Quartet in A minor Op.1 by Czech composer, violinist and chamber musician Josef Suk. Suk was a student (and son-in-law) of Antonin Dvořák and wrote this work while still very much under his tutelage – the influence is palpable. The work sounds like Dvořák and sweeping orchestral film music had a love child, and was incredibly enjoyable from the bravura of the opening Allegro appassionato, through the gorgeous dripping nature scenes in the Adagio, winding up with a passionate, dramatically and texturally exciting Allegro con fuoco. It is great music which feels orchestrally conceived, from the many octaves in the violin, through numerous horn-calls to the harp-like passages featured in the piano. It would not take an arranger with much imagination to do well with it. The quartet demonstrated wonderful communication and ensemble, hitting the right blend of polish and energy. The difficulty with this combination of piano and strings is that it is easy to fall into piano vs. string trio, a trap which was avoided well by studied attention to how notes ended and attacks began. The ensemble lands very well together and the players definitely know their way around the romantic repertoire – this was a very well thought through rendition of a gorgeous piece of literature.

Less successful was the première of Petr Popelka’s “Szenen für Klavierquartett”, though not through any fault of the players. Indeed, if every modern composer had their works premiered with such attention to detail and finesse the musical world would be a better place. Popelka’s piece, a one-movement work, purported to explore the color and tone possibilities of the four instruments. While it utilized every single effect and sound production method available (tremolos, bariolage, scratch tones, pizzicato, playing inside the piano, pedal effects, etc. etc. etc.) and gave all four instrumentalists (yes, even the viola!) the opportunity to strut their virtuosic stuff, there was a fundamental lack of musical material upon which the work was based. Despite some very interesting, strange and beautiful moments as well as top-notch interpretations, the composition fought to hold our interest sandwiched between the Suk and the Schumann.

The Schumann was brilliant and fun! By this point in the evening, everyone's sound had opened up beautifully, which we fully appreciated in the Andante cantabile. Technical proficiency and brilliant clarity prevailed without ever feeling staid or overcautious through the quicker movements, and the Scherzo and Finale were taken at risky clips without the slightest sense of danger. Bravo!