The second of two programs in the “Classic Masterpieces” weekend at Garth Newel Music Center featured the music of Mozart and two French composers (see Bachtrack's review of the first concert here).

The concert began with Mozart's Quartet in G minor for Piano and Strings. Written in 1785, this work marked the beginning of Mozart's full maturity as a composer, notable for its minor key and thorough thematic development. Such was its magnitude that Franz Hoffmeister, Mozart's new publisher, declined to accept it for publication. Reportedly he said to Mozart: “Write more popularly, or else I can neither print nor pay for anything of yours” – words Hoffmeister would later take back as he did indeed publish the composer's music.

Mozart's <i>Quartet in G Minor for Piano and Strings</i> at Garth Newel Music Center © Sara Carey
Mozart's Quartet in G Minor for Piano and Strings at Garth Newel Music Center
© Sara Carey

This work is one of those quartets that, from its very first notes, takes you by the lapels and commands your attention. The first movement was given a suitably commanding interpretation by the Garth Newel players, with unison strings in dialog with the piano. At times this felt like the beginnings of the Romantic era – a completely valid interpretation given the musical material. In the second movement Andante, the viola introduction of the main theme set the stage for a very special interpretation, where Mozart's then-notably adventurous harmonic style was emphasized. In the concluding Rondo, a plethora of Mozart's melodies came at us one after the other. In all, this performance went from strength to strength, with each movement seemingly more perfect than the one before.

The Mozart was followed by Maurice Ravel's String Quartet in F major. Created in 1903 when the composer was still a pupil of Fauré, the piece has a standard classical structure, but it's far more than merely a student effort. Ravel specialist Arbie Orenstein has written that Ravel's Quartet “displays emotional reticence, innovation within traditional forms and unrivaled technical mastery” while abandoning “the vagueness and formlessness of the early French impressionists in favor of a return to classic standards”. This is clearly evident in the first movement, Allegro moderato, with its sonata form. I was particularly taken with the more reflective second theme in today's performance, with the first violin and viola playing two octaves apart.

Highly contrasted was the second movement's pizzicato strings and the wistful theme played by the cello. These were the most “in your face” pizzicato notes I've ever heard in this quintet – and it worked magnificently. In the third movement, here again solo string passages by the viola and violin were paired beautifully with rhapsodic support from the other players. In the final Rondo – one couldn't help but hear how “modern” the music is with its frequent changes in harmony and time signature. It was terrifically exciting to experience this rich, committed interpretation of Ravel's masterpiece..

In the Mozart and Ravel numbers, several of the Garth Newel Emerging Artist Fellows filled in for regular members of the Garth Newel Piano Quartet. I was impressed by how beautifully the instrumentalists blended, and how tight was the ensemble.

Héritte-Viardot's <i>Piano Quartet no. 1 in A Major</i> at the Garth Newel Music Center © Sara Carey
Héritte-Viardot's Piano Quartet no. 1 in A Major at the Garth Newel Music Center
© Sara Carey

Wrapping up the concert was a true rarity: the Piano Quartet no. 1 in A major by Louise Héritte-Viardot. A member of a prodigiously musical Parisian family, Louise, whose dates are 1841-1918, is often mistaken for her mother, the singer and composer Pauline Viardot (1821-1910). The Viardot family interacted with all of the musical personages of the day, and Héritte-Viardot was surely influenced by many of them. Unfortunately, most of her compositions have not survived but we do have her three piano quartets. The first of these, composed in 1883, is subtitled “Im Sommer” and the music is clearly descriptive.

The GNPQ has championed Héritte-Viardot's chamber music over the years, so this was not the premiere outing of the First Quartet at Garth Newel. The first movement, “Mornings in the Forest”, is lyrical and employs a hunting motif to boot. To my ears, it was impossible not to be reminded of Joachim Raff. The players gave full measure to the movement's lyricism, while in the second movement, “Flies and Butterflies”, the music alternates between fast and slow tempi – no doubt reflecting the character of the insects.

The slow third movement, “Sultry Weather” was well in keeping with the humidity of this particular Sunday afternoon's concert at Garth Newel, while the quartet's final movement depicts evening festivities, replete with peasant dance rhythms. Shades of Karl Goldmark perhaps, but no matter: the high spirits brought the Quartet – and the concert – to a rumbustious conclusion.

Is the Héritte-Viardot an essential entry in the catalogue? Not really. But it is a thoroughly engaging composition – a real hoot, actually – and it's guaranteed to put a smile on any face. Kudos to the Garth Newel Piano Quartet for including the piece in their repertoire.

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