Hamelin, St. Luke’s quartet rise and shine at morning concert

Wed Mar 01, 2023 at 12:15 pm
Marc-André Hamelin and members of the Orchestra of St. Luke’s performed piano quintets of Brahms and Florence Price Tuesday morning at Merkin Concert Hall. Photo: Edwina Hay

The crack of dawn for musicians is generally thought to be sometime around 2 p.m., but pianist Marc-André Hamelin and a quartet of string players from the Orchestra of St. Luke’s were in evening form Tuesday in Merkin Concert Hall for a bright and early 11 a.m. chamber music concert. The program was two quintets, both belonging, in one way or another, to the 19th century—Florence Price’s Quintet in A minor for Piano and Strings, and the mighty Brahms Quintet in F minor for Piano and Strings.

This was a finely played concert with the kind of unanimity of purpose and attention to detail one is used to hearing from long-standing ensembles. This group, with violinists Krista Bennion Feeney and Jesse Mills, violist Dana Kelley, and cellist Myron Lutzke, is built around the core of the St. Luke’s chamber groups, with the addition of the star pianist. Hamelin, along with being one of the leading solo pianists on the classical scene, is also a professional musician, one who listens well, works easily with others, and can fit into many situations and styles.

Although the sounds of Price and Brahms are very different, the two composers share a program easily. Much of that is because Price, through a 20th century composer, looks to the past (as did Brahms in his own way). Her Quintet was rediscovered only this century as part of the ongoing, and welcome, attention to her work. Price was as capable a composer as many whose works are frequently heard in concert, but she stands apart from her American peers who were carving out modernist paths while she was extending Dvořák’s idea of Americana into a new era.

That voice comes through even more strongly in the Piano Quintet than in her symphonies. The music is packed with the harmonies, rhythms, and colors of 19th century parlor songs and dance music. There is a subtle yet strong fragment of the gospel song “Let My People Go” in the opening movement, and the third movement, “Juba. Allegro,” is steeped in ragtime—showing how that music, and American music in general, is rooted in earlier black music.

This was a graceful performance from the musicians, especially in the first movement. That has a lovely, cogent second section, and Feeney had a great singing tone in her lines, but the composer’s structure is surrounded by fragments. Price’s writing lays out everything in a smooth line, but one that is made of incomplete ideas linked together. The players’ determination kept this flowing even as the content itself comes out as a near-random jumble.

The first movement is also the most dramatic. The second, slow movement is warm, comforting, homespun Americana, and the playing was gorgeous. Hamelin, though mostly self-effacing in this ensemble, had terrific rhythmic touch in the third movement. The piece ends, unusually, with a scherzo, and the flow and energy of this was enough to have one thinking more composers should try this form.

After an intermission, the violinists switched chairs and the ensemble launched into Brahms’ Quintet with tremendous weight and power. While Price is more rooted in popular music and its strict tempos, Brahms is full of bits of rubato and tempo modulations, and the group’s attention to this was exceptional, with changes that were slight but clear, well judged and expressively meaningful. The recapitulation of the main theme, before the coda, ramped up the intensity to just below a breaking point.

The Andante was individually well played but never quite gelled. Hamelin and the strings seemed on parallel paths, always in time and without conflict but never sounding like they were working together. The ensemble feeling returned in full for the Scherzo, seemingly brought together by the return of some of the tension found in the opening movement.

Perhaps tension was the key in this performance, as the ebb and flow of tension and release in the final movement was superb, and the most emotionally rich and fraught music brought out the best in the musicians. The opening of the finale had a gripping desolate sound that gradually moved to a fuller, expressive quality that deepened in the slower section of this movement. The run up through the coda to the final chord was forceful, with an intensity that came nearing to flying into chaos. It was an exciting finish to the morning.

This program will repeated 8 p.m. Wednesday in Weill Recital Hall. carnegiehall.org

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