September 24, 2016
Robert Schumann’s Piano Quintet in E-flat, in a performance to cherish in memory, capped the opening concert of Camerata San Antonio’s 13th season, Sept. 18 in the concert hall at the University of the Incarnate Word.
Camerata has dubbed its 2016-17 season “the year of the quartet” to denote completion of the troupe’s transition from a mix-and-match chamber music aggregation to a standing string quartet. It comprises Matthew Zerweck and Anastasia Parker (violins), Emily Freudigman (viola) and Ken Freudigman (cello). In the Schumann quintet and a work by the contemporary Finnish composerAulis Sallinen, the string players were joined by the gifted pianist Viktor Valkov, a frequent collaborator in local chamber music. The concert opened with an affectionate, supple account of Antonin Dvorak’s String Quartet in E-flat, Op. 51.
Composed in 1843, Schumann’s pioneering work — the first major piece to combine piano and string quartet — remains one of the most commanding peaks of Romantic chamber music. Visiting and local ensembles have performed it several times hereabouts in recent years, always with a cautiousness that left too much of the music’s overflowing life on the page.
But this performance spread its wings and soared as I’ve never heard it before. The manic opening allegro, the giddy, propulsive scherzo and the bold finale were fleet, agile and seamless, compelling from first to last. In the funeral march, the repeating rhythmic pattern took on a death-rattle chill. Mr. Valkov’s crisp diction, deeply etched rhythms and brilliant technique contributed immeasurably to the results and perfectly complemented the string quartet’s taut precision and big, radiant sound. The whole came off as surprisingly contemporary, as if this 19th-century piece would have been just as much at home in Sam’s Burger Joint as in a traditional concert hall.
Sallinen is one the most important living Finnish composers, respected worldwide for operas (Santa Fe Opera staged his The King Goes Forth to France in 1986), symphonies and chamber works. Though his music stands within the modern extension of Romantic tradition, it is often stark and dark. His Introduction and Tango Overture for piano quintet opens with wistful, shadowy music in shifting harmonies. The following tango flails violently and sardonically. The splendid, fearless performance served to whet the appetite for more of this great composer’s music.