April 12, 2013

Review: Portland concert like conversation: intellectual, good to hear


Pianist Jonathan Biss and the Elias String Quartet came to Hannaford Hall on Thursday night to play a tribute to Robert Schumann and his precursor, Henry Purcell.


Jonathan Biss and The Elias String Quartet

WHERE: Hannaford Hall, USM Portland

WHEN: April 11

They also performed a new work by Timo Andres inspired by the Schumann Piano Quintet.

All of the compositions on the program had close relationships to one another. I'm uncertain whether Schumann ever heard Purcell's work, but his own String Quartet in A Minor, Op. 41, No. 1 is closer in spirit to the English composer than to Bach, whose fugues Robert and Clara were studying at the time of its composition.

The program opened with three fantasias by Henry Purcell: No. 4 in G minor (Z.735), No. 6 in F Major (Z.737), and No. 8 in D minor (Z.739), all of them written for a "consort of viols" to be played in a private home.

Each of the fantasias consists of a polyphonic first section, a slower homophonic interlude and a dance-like ending. The overall impression is of a conversation among friends.

The conversation continued in the Schumann's String Quartet, the opening movement of which seemed uncannily like the successive imitations of a theme that began each of the Purcell works. One of the Elias Quartet's strengths is tone color, and Purcell and Schumann seemed for a while to flow together.

Performance is everything, and a good musician can always emphasize similarities, but in this case there was a distinct connection between music written in the 17th and 19th centuries, pointing up Schumann's contention that a true quartet is a conversation.

The Andres Piano Quintet that followed intermission was a fascinating piece which based each of its five quirky movements on a large form composed of several smaller elements, like Schumann's "Carnival." Biss joined the quartet in a striking performance in which the piano sometimes dominated and sometimes disappeared altogether.

The piano dominated in most sections of the familiar and delightful Piano Quartet in E-flat Major (Op. 47). In this case, there was a kind of feedback loop -- sections of the quartet harking back to the delicate "teneramente" movement of the Andres Quintet.

The only quibble with a program that was both intellectual and good to hear was Biss' somewhat strident championing of Schumann who, no matter how critics may carp and complain, needs no defense. 

Christopher Hyde's Classical Beat column appears in the Maine Sunday Telegram. He can be reached at:


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