On Friday evening, at the First Unitarian Society, the Ancora String Quartet closed a somewhat sparse season with a rich program. Sparse because its regular first violinist, Leanne League, has been on sabbatical, reducing the group effectively to a string trio (Robin Ryan, Marika Fischer-Hoyt and Benjamin Whitcomb).
The group have dealt with their reduction by drawing upon other instrumentalists. Last autumn they provided examples of wind-and-strings quartets. At this concert, they explored the considerable literature of the piano quartet. In this they were joined by the Korean-born, American-trained pianist Myung-Hee Chung. It was a wise choice, for she is a wonderful artist, with a piano tone that is pearly in both roundness and sheen.
The combination of piano and strings, especially in quartet form, was effectively launched by Mozart, and has been taken up by composers ever since, so there is a lot of material in the repertoire. The difficulty for composers is to decide how to put together instruments that are quite different in tone production: one with hammered strings against those with bowed strings (either a trio or a quartet itself). The fascinating thing about this Ancora program was not just that it combined some relatively familiar music with rarely heard works. It also offered a splendid demonstration of how three very different composers dealt with this challenge of combinations.
Quite logically, the starting point was Mozart, via the second of his two Piano Quartets, that in E-flat, K. 493. Mozart's approach was to set the piano in opposition to the strings, in the style of a reduced concerto. Mozart was, of course, the first great composer of piano concertos, and he could skillfully transfer the character of these concertos with three string players as a mini-orchestra, against which the piano was treated as a quasi-soloist.
Two later composers, contemporaries, tried two different methods, each in relatively brief three-movement works. Frank Bridge (1879-1941) was one of a group of gifted British composers active in the early decades of the 20th century. A few of his songs aside, much of Bridge's music was neglected and he was becoming remembered mainly as the teacher and mentor of Benjamin Britten, who revered him. But lately Bridge's music has been given increasing attention. His Phantasy String Quartet is the work of a professional string player. His writing for the strings -- rich, full-bodied, finely textured -- is the key element, with the piano giving a kind of running commentary on it.
Utterly different in many ways is the Piano Quartet in A minor, Op. 67, by Joaquin Turina (1882-1949). Where Bridge's writing is rather "objective," Turina's is passionately outgoing. Its music is warmly melodic, and in a frankly Spanish way. The piano and string parts constantly exchange ideas, their differences in sound stressing the interchanges, but as if they are all sharing a common endeavor. I think for many in the audience, Turina was the happiest discovery of this program.
Of course, one could imagine more extended exploration of this piano-quartet literature. Schumann, Brahms, Dvorák and Fauré, among others, had their own ways of making this combination work. Throughout the program, partly inspired by working with Chung, the three Ancora string players delivered confident, polished and strongly committed playing, making the concert a satisfying one indeed.