Classical CD Reviews

SCHUMANN: Piano Quintet in E-flat Major; DVORAK: Piano Quintet in A Major – Elias String Q./ Jonathan Biss, p. – Onyx

Two landmarks of the Romantic piano quintet medium played with intelligent and fervent vigor by Jonathan Biss and his youthful Elias Quartet collaborators.

Published on December 23, 2012

SCHUMANN: Piano Quintet in E-flat Major; DVORAK: Piano Quintet in A Major – Elias String Q./ Jonathan Biss, p. – Onyx

SCHUMANN: Piano Quintet in E-flat Major, Op. 44; DVORAK: Piano Quintet in A Major, Op. 81 – Elias String Quartet/ Jonathan Biss, piano – Onyx 4092, 70:53 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****:

Rising American keyboard star Jonathan Biss (b. 1980) combines (rec. 27-30 April 2012) with the Elias String Quartet  – Sara Bitlloch and Donald Grant, violins; Martin Saving, viola; and Marie Bitlloch, cello – in two chamber music staples in the quintet genre, those by Schumann and Dvorak. Given the Biss piano pedagogy through Leon Fleisher back to Artur Schnabel, the paired inscription places Biss in a direct descent of the recorded legacy, too.

The 1842 Schumann Piano Quintet – the funeral march second movement notwithstanding – reigns as among the composer’s sunniest, most extroverted works. Lyrical inspiration abounds, typical of 1842 as Schumann’s chamber music and song year. No less apparent through the clarity of the present realization are Schumann’s skills at part-writing and counterpoint. The “progressive” aspect of the composition comes in the final movement’s opening, sempre marcato, in G Minor, arriving at the E-flat Major tonality by circuitous routes that Mahler would find attractive to his own ideas of spiritual evolution.

Particularly effective in these tonal transitions are the strong attacks from Martin Saving’s pungent viola. The lovely counter-theme of the In modo d’una marcia has wonderful interplay between the violins and Biss.  Brisk scale patterns urge the Scherzo forward, along with bubbly syncopes in the latter section. The second trio in A-flat Minor came as a result of Mendelssohn’s criticism of the original, so that a perpetual-motion velocity raises clouds and wily vapors. The opening chord of the finale never ceases to engage us when it receives the right touch, and it works here. The music soon moves to three-part fugal procedure, rather a tour de force for both inventor and instrumental acolytes. The performance never rushes, choosing to breathe Schumann’s rounded periods, the cello of Ms. Bitlloch intoning the bass with a fervor matched above by Biss and the higher strings. Most songful, this tender rendition of a favorite chamber music ensemble piece, whose version by Myra Hess and members of the Pablo Casals contingent at Prades and Perpignan had long been my preferred listening.

The 1887 Dvorak Piano Quintet may well be the most beautiful of all inventions in the medium. From the outset, the cello’s setting of the music in an ambiguous major/minor tonality, the opening movement vacillates between bucolic serenity and nostalgic plaintiveness. Czech dances run rampant throughout the piece, both of a Slavonic spirited quality and those that take from the Ukrainian dumka a melancholic lament. Dvorak’s own viola once more introduces the haunting secondary tune in C-sharp Minor that dominates our ear for most of the development section.  The performance itself achieves a chaste driven romanticism, not quite so sec as the Curzon/Budapest inscription, but not so opulent as the Rubinstein traversal. Biss manages to keep a tight legato or staccato leash on his Steinway D that never obtrudes into Dvorak’s lithely transparent textures.  The Dumka: Andante con moto second movement in F-sharp Minor offers itself as a color symphony in miniature, with many alterations of mood, key, and texture. For me, the ultimate magic occurs in the F Major trio, Poco tranquillo, of the Vivace (Furiant) movement. Exalted suspension of time soon returns to the infectious brio of the opening figures. None needs defend the last movement’s bounty of ideas, Dvorak’s melodic invention in magnificent overdrive both on and off the beat, in plainchant or polyphonic textures. Fleet, virile, superbly animated, the performance by Biss and comrades has the blessings of natural melodic funds and excellent sonics, courtesy of balance engineer Mike Clements.

—Gary Lemco




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