Kissin, Emerson Quartet banish the winter chill with chamber warmth

Tue Apr 17, 2018 at 11:29 am

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Evgeny Kissin and the Emerson String Quartet performed music of Mozart, Faure and Dvořák Sunday at Symphony Center. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

At the midpoint of April—three weeks after the first day of Spring—Chicago’s winter continues with no letup in sight.

A respite from the weekend’s rain, chilly temperatures and high winds was afforded with the consolatory warmth of chamber music Sunday afternoon at Symphony Center.

In a rare local chamber appearance, Evgeny Kissin partnered with the Emerson String Quartet in a program of cornerstone works that for two hours banished Chicago’s endless bleak midwinter.

The program offered a Cook’s Chamber Tour of sorts, with piano-and-string masterworks from Vienna to Paris and Prague, drawing a packed house that included onstage seating.

Mozart can be said to have invented the piano quartet with his two works in the genre—giving the strings equal importance and independence rather than acting as a mere echo chamber for the keyboard.

The greatest solo musicians are invariably great chamber players as well. Such was clearly the case Sunday with Kissin settling into a congenial partnership with the Emerson members (violinist Philip Setzer, violist Lawrence Dutton and cellist Paul Watkins) in Mozart’s Piano Quartet in G minor, K.478. The performance was bright and idiomatic, the Russian pianist and string players blending fluently into an easy, well-blended ensemble.

Perhaps the playing was a bit straight-faced at times with the Andante poised, and rather cool in its lack of affection. Yet Kissin and company brought light vivacity to the finale even if there was somewhat intermittent Mozartian sparkle.

Gabriel Faure’s Piano Quartet No. 1 in C minor proved more congenial territory. With Eugene Drucker taking the violin chair, the musicians conveyed the rhapsodic ebb and flow of the outer movements as surely as the skittering playfulness of the Scherzo and the Adagio’s searching elegiac expression.

As fine as the performance was, there was a lack of warmth and richness in the Emerson strings that diluted some of Faure’s romantic impact in music that ideally needs a larger cushion of string tone. That’s less the fault of the players than the damage done to the room’s acoustic by the 1997 renovation; the loss of presence and shimmer on high string frequencies, especially,  continues to bedevil the hall and is most manifest with chamber groups and smaller ensembles

If the opening half had a kind of first-date feel to it–with everyone on their best behavior and not quite relaxed and comfortable with each other—the closing Dvořák performance showed the musical relationship between Kissin and the full Emerson lineup at its peak.

Dvořák’s Piano Quintet No. 2 in A major, is among the Czech composer’s finest inspirations,   crafted with consummate skill, a  dizzying range of expression and thematic munificence striking even by his standard.

Here, the players sounded most in synch with Dvořák’s quintet. Their freewheeling performance reflected that, often pushing extremes of tempos and dynamics yet maintaining close ensembles in a way that always served the score. The usually serious Kissin seemed to be enjoying himself immensely, often turning and smiling at his string colleagues.

There was wonderful fire and vivacity in the outer sections yet the Dumka movement was most striking. The players brought apt folk flavor to the moody opening theme and vividly characterized the contrasting sections—evoking the introspective melancholy while bringing a mercurial, almost unhinged quality to the rapid mood shifts.

Enthusiastic ovations from the assembled brought the five musicians back out until they obliged with an encore—the Scherzo from Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet–attacked with a  forceful metallic edge yet finding a surprisingly hearty quality as well that felt right for the occasion.

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