Shriver opens with Mozart Piano Quartet

Three pieces on program offer fine sampling

Stage: Theater, Music, Dance

September 23, 2004|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

What's the first thing you think of when someone says "chamber music"? No, not "boring." Only people who have never given chamber music a proper try would say that. Most likely, the response would be "string quartet," since there are so many examples of how composers have found an ideal means of expression in this combination of two violins, viola and cello.

But another instrumental foursome would be just as deserving a response to this association game: "piano quartet." Newcomers to chamber music may conjure up an image of four keyboards, but a piano quartet consists of violin, viola, cello and piano.

There are superb examples of beauty and imagination in the repertoire for piano quartet, and you can hear three on Sunday when the Shriver Hall Concert opens its 39th season.

The featured ensemble at Shriver Hall will be the well-regarded Mozart Piano Quartet, which was founded in 1997. Its members are violinist Elisabeth Kufferath, violist Hartmut Rohde and cellist Peter Horr -- all from Germany -- and pianist Tamara Anna Cislowska from Australia.

Incidentally, chamber music terminology has a little quirk. "Piano quartet" can mean two things -- a piece written for violin, viola, cello and piano; or a group made up of those four instruments. So the Mozart Piano Quartet (the ensemble) can play a Mozart piano quartet (a composition) -- which is what will happen on Sunday.

Composers started writing piano quartets in the mid-1700s, but they were initially piano-centric; the strings basically stayed in an accompaniment mode. Some early piano quartets were really just chamber-sized keyboard concertos, with the orchestra parts reduced to violin, viola and cello.

But things changed when Mozart entered the genre with two piano quartets that remain masterpieces of form and content. Although he revealed the potential of the piano quartet, not that many other composers jumped at the chance to follow his lead. Those who did, however, created some of the most effective and appealing works in the whole chamber music repertoire. These include the piano quartets by Schumann, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Dvorak, Faure and Aaron Copland (his score, in a very abstract style, doesn't get the attention it deserves).

The three pieces on Sunday's program provide an excellent sampling of the genre. Mozart's Piano Quartet in G minor finds the composer at his most inspired. The piece is particularly notable for the clouds that hover over the first movement, relieved here and there by sweeter, more lyrical thoughts. Even in the bustling, good-humored finale, there are a few keen reminders of the edgier world of the opening movement.

Schumann's Piano Quartet in E-flat major contains what has to be ranked among the most sublime melodies ever written by anyone.

It's the main theme of the third movement, and the way it gets lovingly passed among the instruments is simply magical. The movement ends in a series of gentle rising and falling gestures, slowly reduced to a few wispy notes that, once evaporated, leave behind the beguiling scent of romantic transcendence.

The rest of the quartet is beautifully crafted, too, full of engaging ideas and colorful writing.

Engaging and colorful are also words for the youthful Piano Quartet in C minor by Richard Strauss. This work finds a young man of 20 showing off like crazy. It's hardly his most brilliant achievement -- the piece would be largely overshadowed by his stunning orchestral and operatic output written later -- but it's always fun to hear a composer in the early stage of his development, especially one as precocious as Strauss.

For more theater, classical music and dance events, see Page 34.

Concert

What: Mozart Piano Quartet

Where: Shriver Hall, Johns Hopkins University, 3400 N. Charles St.

When: 7:30 p.m. Sunday

Tickets: $33; $17 for students (student rush $8)

Call: 410-516-7164

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