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Music review: Faure Quartett stopover

January 17, 2010 |  3:36 pm

FPQ heads tinted

The Fauré Quartett -- which made its Los Angeles debut Saturday night in the ornate, domed Doheny Mansion at Mount St. Mary’s College – came across as four serious, scholarly seeming Germans doing their thing and doing it extremely well. Their thing is to explore the piano quartet literature, of which there isn’t a lot. The Fauré named itself after the French composer who wrote two of the best piano quartets, and the ensemble played his first, which is renowned for having, among other things, made a big  impression on Marcel Proust.

As part of a soiree series sponsored by the Da Camera Society, the concert was intimate, held in the mansion’s Pompeian Room. The players (violinist Erika Geldsetzer, violist Sascha Froembling, cellist Konstantin Heidrich and pianist Dirk Mommertz) were cool and collected. Contact with music and musicians was up close and immediate, just the way chamber music used to be before concert halls became oversized and ensembles became jet-setters.

That ensembles such as the Fauré are, in fact, returning to chamber music’s homey roots is not uncommon. The group will wind up its current North American tour on Feb. 1 in New York at the Greenwich Village new music club, Le Poisson Rouge. But that is hardly to say that things are the way they used to be. These distinguished young musicians who have just released a Brahms CD on the prestigious Deutsche Grammophon label, will play pop music by Steely Dan, Pet Shop Boys and the like at Poisson Rouge. Presumably Rufus Wainwright will show up. He made a CD with them three years ago.

And to call the Fauré jet-setters is to put it mildly. The players arrived at LAX barely an hour before its concert at the downtown Mount St. Mary’s campus. The night before, the quartet performed at Purdue University and it took 14 hours Saturday, thanks to two flights with mechanical breakdowns, to reach L.A. from Indianapolis. There was obviously no time to warm up, try out the unusual venue in which every sound is exposed or the Pompeian’s lovely 120-year-old piano, which has quirks of its own.

The piano quartet literature is not only small but it is also odd. Mozart, Brahms, Fauré, Dvorák, Milhaud and Copland wrote the great pieces. Mahler, Bartok, Beethoven contributed juvenilia or minor works. Mahler’s is a student work composed when he was studying the Vienna Conservatory, and it attracts attention because it shows a 16-year-old who was already Mahler and because it is his only piece of chamber music.

If the Mahler sounded even more boisterous than it usually does when it opened Saturday’s program, the players were, after all, still warming up, learning the room and coping with all the adrenaline that such adventures in travel tend to produce. I took their jumping in without caution as a very good sign.

The Mahler lasts a dozen minutes and foretells a composer of grand symphonic ambition, and amazingly those dozen minutes were all the Faurés needed to find their focus. Mozart’s Piano Quartet in E-flat, K. 493, which followed, was played with refinement and grace. Balancing a string trio with piano is never easy under the best of circumstances (which is why there aren’t many full-time piano quartet ensembles or why composers have tended to shy away from the combination). This, though, was a beautifully, carefully played performance, full of exciting give-and-take and nicely executed embellishments.

Fauré’s First Piano Quartet came after intermission, and by this point the ensemble was in fully robust form. In an engaging talk before the concert, the musicologist Byron Adams presented Fauré as a neglected figure but one whose innovations have been important. One trajectory he pointed out was from Fauré to the French pedagogue Nadia Boulanger, who was Copland’s teacher. I’d extend that to Philip Glass, who also studied with her and who has gone on to influence pop musicians.

Which brings us to the Fauré Quartett’s pop side. There was no indication of it Saturday. The encore was Brahms. The CDs for sale were of Mozart and Brahms. Their DG disc “Popsongs” must be ordered from overseas. The quartet’s Rufus Wainwright collaboration doesn’t appear to be available anywhere.  

Meanwhile, the Faurés are such roadies that they hardly have an extra three minutes for a pop song encore these days. They were already heading back to LAX at 5 a.m. Sunday for a concert that night in Calgary, Canada. Their first visit to L.A. lasted less than 12 hours.

-- Mark Swed

Photo: The Fauré Quartett. Credit: KASSKARA