The Ames Piano Quartet, 1989-2009: Piano Quartets by Dvořák, Fauré, Richard Strauss, Charles-Marie Widor, Schumann, Brahms, Paul Juon, Sergei Taneyev, Borodin, Joseph Suk, Vitězslav Novák, Martinů, Chausson and Saint-Saëns. Mahlon Darlington, violin; Lawrence Bulkhalter and Jonathan Sturm, viola; George Work, cello; William David, piano. Dorian Sono Luminus. $49.99 (8 CDs).
It would be unfair to characterize string quartets as a dime a dozen, especially in light of the cost of the instruments they play. But they are certainly common – in contrast to piano quartets, which are not common at all. Playing the great piano-quartet literature usually means adding a pianist to an existing trio or removing a violinist from an existing string quartet and inserting a piano player. The results can be quite wonderful, but they are not to be compared with what happens when a piano quartet is formed specifically as a piano quartet and plays together, time after time, year after year. When that happens – which, again, it rarely does – the music-making can be truly special, as it is in this wonderful 20-year retrospective of recordings by the Ames Piano Quartet.
The Ames is the resident chamber-music ensemble at Iowa State University – located in Ames, Iowa; hence the quartet’s name. The players have been together for many years: Jonathan Sturm recently assumed the viola role previously held by Lawrence Bulkhalter, but violinist Mahlon Darlington, cellist George Work and pianist William David have been together through the entire 20-year time span covered by this new release. Unfortunately, Dorian Sono Luminus does not give dates for the recordings, but in fact they are more or less chronological through the first seven CDs, the disc of Dvořák’s two piano quartets being the oldest and that of quartets by Suk, Novák and Martinů the most recent. The eighth CD belongs somewhere in the middle of the pack: it was originally released by Musical Heritage Society and here appears on the Dorian Sono Luminus label for the first time.
In fact, it was already true in 1989 that the Ames Piano Quartet offered wonderfully well integrated sound and thoughtful, perceptive interpretations: its Dvořák CD is a highlight of the set and one of the best recordings these quartets have ever received. The rather sunny Dvořák works (from 1875 and 1889, respectively) contrast interestingly with the two minor-key piano quartets by Fauré on the next CD. Fauré was fond of modal music, using the Aeolian mode in his first piano quartet (1876-9) and the Phrygian in his second (1885-6). Fauré’s unusual technique of recombining themes in different contexts (in terms of harmony and texture) is especially well brought out by the Ames players. In their hands, these quartets sing beautifully.
Less well known are the piano quartets of Richard Strauss and Charles-Marie Widor, on the third CD in this set. Strauss wrote his at age 20. It is a well-made work but not highly distinctive except insofar as it looks ahead to other Strauss works, notably in the dramatic Scherzo and in a violin passage that anticipates Till Eulenspiegel. Widor, best known for his organ music, wrote a rather Liszt-influenced quartet with a prominent piano part and a modal element akin to Fauré’s: Widor’s quartet’s finale features a theme in Lydian mode. The Ames Piano Quartet handles these two lesser works with the same attention to style and detail that it gives to more-accomplished pieces, making as good a case for the music as is likely to be made by anyone.
The fourth and fifth CDs in this release return to music of stellar quality: Schumann’s sole piano quartet and the three by Brahms. Here the Ames players are simply wonderful. Schumann’s Piano Quartet strongly contrasts staccato with legato passages and, in the Scherzo, sounds a bit like Mendelssohn, who was a friend and mentor to Schumann. There is also songlike beauty here, in the slow movement, and the Ames players truly make it sing. In Brahms’ Piano Quartet No. 1 (in G minor), the performers give as much care and attention to the first three movements as to the famous concluding Gypsy rondo, making the work sound more intense and unified than it sometimes does. In Brahms’ Piano Quartet No. 2 (in A), the passion and songfulness flow freely, and the finale emerges with some of the same intensity as the Gypsy rondo of the earlier quartet. The composer’s third quartet (in C minor) can be problematic: it was started before either of the other two (and was originally in C-sharp minor); but it was finished later, and there is some confusion about how Brahms worked it into final form. That sort of thing is academic, though, when the Ames players offer such a finely honed reading of the work, whose first two movements are intense and stormy but whose third offers placidity and peace before a finale of pervasive melancholy, if not quite tragedy. The shifting moods of the music require just the sort of careful attention to detail that the Ames Piano Quartet provides.
Less-familiar music returns in the sixth CD of this set. Sergei Taneyev (1856-1915) was the teacher of Paul Juon (1872-1940). Taneyev’s work clearly reflects the language of Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov, and Juon carries a similar approach into the following compositional generation. But as it happens, both these composers’ piano quartets date to the same year, 1906. Taneyev’s offers soaring melodies and some very effective contrapuntal passages; Juon’s gives the cello special prominence and is filled with passion expressed in a rather free style – in fact, Juon called his work Rhapsody rather than a piano quartet, and the term is apt. This CD is filled out what a piano-quartet arrangement by Geoffrey Wilcken of Borodin’s Polovetsian Dances from Prince Igor. These wonderful dances – intended for full orchestra and chorus – have survived all sorts of arrangements and survive this one, too. The players do their usual fine job here, but the arrangement adds nothing to the music.
The seventh CD here includes three Czech piano quartets, none of them particularly well known (although Josef Suk’s remains popular among Czech players). Suk’s piece (in A minor) is his Op. 1, and it has the passion and confidence of a youthful composer who wrote it on assignment from his teacher, who was none other than Dvořák. It actually became Suk’s graduation piece from the Prague Conservatory – on Dvořák’s recommendation. This quartet retains freshness and songfulness and has an especially lovely central Adagio. As for Vitězslav Novák, he was one of Suk’s classmates. His sole Piano Quartet (in C minor) was written in 1894, three years after Suk’s quartet, and thoroughly revised in 1899. Its highlight is a bright, charming central movement with the unusual but apt designation of Scherzino. The Suk and Novák quartets are in considerable contrast to the one written by Bohuslav Martinů in 1942. It opens with a nervous, energetic, piano-centered movement that stands in strong contrast to the lyricism of the following Adagio, in the first half of which the piano is silent. The finale flows with determined cheerfulness that the Ames performers bring out with verve.
The last CD in this set returns to the Romantic era. Chausson’s Piano Quartet is a somewhat derivative work – themes and harmonies clearly reflect the influence of Wagner – but it has warmth and songlike charm aplenty (and yet another use of modes, with Phrygian and Mixolydian variants appearing in several of the work’s four movements). This is a pleasant work but not an altogether convincing one, even when played as well as it is here. The quartet by Saint-Saëns, though, is a joy. A well-unified four-movement work whose first movement’s themes return in the finale, it includes impressive contrapuntal writing in an Andante maestoso ma con moto and has a strange, rhythmically jerky sort-of-scherzo that leaves an impression not unlike that of the composer’s Danse macabre – which was written in 1874, just a year before this quartet.
There are nine-and-a-half hours of piano-quartet music in this marvelous set – far too much for a single hearing, or several. This release is a delectation, an immersion in the extensive literature of a musical combination that has sonorities and emotional impact all its own. The playing is exemplary, the music ranges from the interesting to the great, and the set as a whole is a grand and lasting tribute to the skill and intelligence of the members of the Ames Piano Quartet.