By Lee Hartman, KCMetropolis.com
Saturday afternoon’s concert by Jonathan Biss and the Elias Quartet for the Friends of Chamber Music was a mixture of success and schlock. Less than 24 hours after performing a more intimate concert of the same composers’ works, here the Folly audience got to witness more rambunctious offerings.
Biss and Elias opened with Mozart’s sanctioned quartet version of his Concerto No. 13 in C major, K. 415. Biss’s touch and understanding of Mozart’s music is wonderful. His playing is clear and precise with wonderful articulations and sense of line. The Elias Quartet was not a good match. They struggled stylistically with Mozart’s delicateness and played coldly throughout. First violinist Sara Bitlloch seemed especially out-of-sorts with a too-strident tone and many unwanted sound artifacts, like uncharacteristic portamenti and scratches. The final moments of the closing Allegro were delightful, though, as the music dissipated into the ether.
A startling (and welcome) contrast to Mozart was Janáček’s Concertino for Piano and Chamber Ensemble. Joined by Carol McGonnell (clarinets), Eric Reed (horn), and Brad Balliet (bassoon), Biss and his partners performed with panache. The opening Moderato was incessant with Biss and Reed trading off short violent motives.
This was markedly changed in the second movement with McGonnell’s brilliant E-flat clarinet playing (in spite of her physical posture, which would make Alexander technicians cringe). Her playing was buoyant and capricious yet remarkably controlled for such an unforgiving instrument; it even overshadowed Biss’s menacing piano playing. The mechanized Con moto and polka-like Allegro finished the piece in fine form. Here, the strings shone while transitioning a repeated chordal pattern from beautiful to barbaric.
The afternoon concert closed with Schumann’s Piano Quintet in E-flat Major, Op. 44. It is an exuberant work and one of the prime examples of the genre. It is symphonic in scope and construction, and Biss and Elias brought out these features. A far cry from the subpar Mozart, the Quartet played with beautiful balance and cohesion especially in the opening of the second movement, which reminded me of Beethoven’s second movement of Symphony No. 7. The playful exchange of accent patterns between Biss and the Quartet was fun to hear. The final cadence of the second movement was exquisitely quiet. The third movement was a tour de force performance for all players. Smiles abounded on all faces as they blazed through the playful-yet-aggressive Scherzo. A wonderfully manipulated ritardando in the second violin and viola was controlled through ever-so-slightly elongated articulations. The work’s closing fugue and return of the opening melody brought the piece to a satisfying conclusion.