The Spokane String Quartet has always given good musical value in its 29 seasons. But Sunday’s performance at the Martin Woldson Theater at The Fox showed what a really fine ensemble it is.
Four exceptional players – violinists Mateusz Wolski and Misha Rosenker, violist Jeannette Wee-Yang and cellist Helen Byrne – seemed to share the same heart as well as the same mind.
What a pleasure Sunday’s concert was.
The afternoon began with Wolski joined by guest pianist Tadeusz Majewski in works by Henryk Wieniawski and Giuseppe Tartini. Wieniawski’s “Legende,” Op. 17, was composed to persuade his future father-in-law to allow his daughter to marry “a mere musician,” Wolski told the audience. If the composer played the “Legende” with as ardent a tone as Wolski, no wonder the old fellow was won over.
Tartini’s “Devil’s Trill” Sonata remains an infernal challenge after nearly 300 years. Wolski played the devil’s part angelically, and Majewski gave elegantly flexible support in both works.
Majewski played seven solo works by Frederic Chopin, a composer to whom anyone, especially a Polish pianist, owes a great debt. Majewski paid his debt with abundant interest. Anyone who considers Chopin merely a salon composer needs to hear Majewski explore the adventurous rhythms, melodies and harmonies of the three mazurkas he played Sunday. Or feel the tumult in the Prelude in D minor, Op. 28, No. 24. I was particularly taken by the way Majewski caught the aristocratic mood of the Polonaise in A-flat, a work often battered to a pulp as a virtuoso encore.
The afternoon’s centerpiece was Johannes Brahms’ Quintet for Piano and Strings, Op. 34, a work that gave its composer endless problems. The solution was the perfect combination of piano and string quartet – perfect, that is, if the players don’t turn it into a piano concerto with the piano hammering away to murmurs from the string.
In Sunday’s performance, Majewski managed to come to the fore in places where Brahms wanted a piano’s assertive rhythmic character or become just another string player providing only a contrast of color. Sounds easy, but listen to a few recordings of this masterpiece to see how few pianists manage that.
Brahms is unexcelled in sustaining tension gently over long time spans. The members of the Spokane Quartet, by the way they worked in finely balanced groups, made that tension grow until the ear ached for resolution. Resolution is something Brahms, and Sunday’s five players, doled out sparingly. This quintet is a long work that seemed short in this performance.
Another pleasure was the way the Martin Woldson Theater became a partner in making the playing beautiful. Wolski’s performance of “Legende” featured some daringly soft playing, but his sound floated easily throughout the auditorium. The finale of Brahms’ Quintet has moments of driving gypsy abandon, and the tone of all five players going full throttle was strong but never harsh.
Sunday’s performance served as a warm welcome to a tardy spring.