Mark Gresham | 20 MAY 2019
First Presbyterian Church on Peachtree Street is a next door neighbor to The Woodruff Arts Center, located to its immediate north across 16th Street. The High Museum is the closest of the WAC facilities, but the church is only a 500-foot walk form the front door of Symphony Hall. Although less pulicly conspicuous than events of its high-profile neighbor, the 171-year-old church lays claim to “strong relationships with the surrounding arts community” and sponsors its own music series, which presented its last concert of the season on Sunday afternoon. That just happened to also be the season closer for its featured ensemble of the day, the Atlanta Chamber Players.
A sizable audience was in attendance, and First Presbyterian’s excellent acoustics were ideal for what was a superlative performance of venerable repertoire by Brahms and Schubert.
Violinist Helen Hwaya Kim, hornist Susan Welty and pianist Elizabeth Pridgen opened the concert with the Trio for Violin, Horn and Piano in E-flat major, Op. 40, by Johannes Brahms. Composed and premiered in 1865, the Horn Trio pay homage to the composer’s mother, who died earlier that year. It would be the last chamber music Brahms would write until 1873, when he produced his first two strung quartets as Op. 51.
There were few examples of works for violin, horn and piano before Brahms’ Trio and it soon became a bellwether for music written for that combination. Interestingly, although the modern valve horn was becoming common at the time, Brahms wrote the piece, he intended for the horn to be played a natural horn, one of the instruments which he played as a child.
Although the E-flat natural horn can be easily emulated on the modern horn by a performer simply holding down the first valve, that practice is rare in a contemporary performance. We don’t hear the natural horn’s idiosyncrasies, but the absence of that is probably just as well in most circumstances where an air of historicism is not the primary focus.
On Sunday, we got the modern approach, warm and mellifluous, in a well-balanced, confident performance by three strong players.
After intermission, Pridgen was joined by violinist David Coucheron, violist Catherine Lynn, cellist Brad Ritchie and bassist Joseph McFadden for Franz Schubert’s Piano Quintet in A major, Op. 114, D. 667, familiarly known as “The Trout” Quintet.
Composed in 1819 when Schubert was 22 years old, the Quintet is written for violin, viola, cello, contrabass and piano, rather than the familiar piano quintet comprised of a standard string quartet plus piano. The unusual combination is the result of the fact that the piece was written for a group of musicians coming together to play a similarly scored work by Johann Hummel.
Given that one of those musicians was an amateur cellist and wealthy music patron, Sylvester Paumgartner, the scoring is also not surprising, as it frees the cello more from the bass line, allowing it to take on a more melodic role as the “tenor” voice of the ensemble. It was also Paumgartner who requested inclusion of a set of variations on Schubert’s song, “Die Forelle” (hence the Quintet’s nickname, “The Trout”).
Although it’s a piece that risks being too-frequently programmed, a superb performance always makes up for that, as was the case on Sunday. These two pillars of 19th-century chamber music made for a strong, compelling combination that did not disappoint, leaving the delighted audience uplifted in cheerful post-concert spirits. ■