Fauré Quartet makes a superb stand at the University of Chicago

February 18, 2012

The Faure Quartet performed Friday night at Mandel Hall in Hyde Park. Photo: KASSKARA

The University of Chicago Presents series has always done an exceptional job of booking chamber groups, and so it proved again Friday night with the performance by the Fauré Quartet at Mandel Hall.

Formed in 1995, the German piano quartet has won several awards yet primarily made its name in Europe, not embarking on an American tour until just two years ago.

As shown in the opener, Mahler’s Piano Quartet, the ensemble is an exceedingly well balanced group with a lean, tensile sonority, anchored by first violinist Erika Geldsetzer and the terrific pianist Dirk Mommertz. Violist Sascha Froembling and cellist Konstantin Heidrich are on the same strong level.

The only surviving chamber work of Mahler’s student years, the single movement sounds like a more depressive and agitated Brahms than the Mahler we know from his mature symphonies. The players had the full measure of this brooding and tempestuous music, Mommertz ponding out the stabbing repeated notes and the ensemble judging the ebb and flow superbly. Mahler’s quartet is hardly the work of a greenhorn and one can only wonder what riches we might have had if the composer had been granted a longer life and returned to chamber music in his late years.

One would expect any group to excel in music of the composer from which they took their name and so it proved with Gabriel Fauré’s Piano Quartet No. 1. This music is entirely characteristic, beautifully crafted with a vein of rich melody and inhabiting that curiously French expressive world where geniality and sadness almost seem like the same thing.

The musicians clearly have a deep and idiomatic feel for this repertoire and were completely in synch with the surging rhapsodic nature of the piece, conveying the Gallic elegance in the opening movement while bringing a fizzing intensity to the development section.

Led by Mommertz’s playfully skipping keyboard figures, the Scherzo was aptly light and capricious. The Adagio presents a more somber landscape with its dirge-like opening theme. The Fauré players eloquently conveyed both the nobility as well as the dark rumination, and the finale was thrown off with propulsive, dazzling bravura.

The Fauré Quartet members proved just as successful in Brahms’ Piano Quartet No. 1 in G minor, a much better-known quantity. Again, the musicians brought both strength and refined lyricism to the work, as with the vivacious lilt to the Intermezzo and a charming insouciance to the movement’s coda.

The Andante’s theme was expressive with burnished tone yet deftly avoided the sucrose, and Mommertz and colleagues brought fine swagger to the quirky march-like middle section.The Rondo finale was thrilling not for speed or volume but for the rhythmic cut and the supreme clarity of the articulation.

The repeated ovations brought the musicians back out for an encore, the moto perpetuo final movement of Mendelssohn’s Piano Quartet No. 1, here given a scintillating and delightful performance.

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