[The only review I ever wrote for the Taconic papers, a small chain of weeklies published on the east side of the upper Hudson River. The concert took place in 1998.]

The Rhinebeck Chamber Music Society celebrated a successful Valentine’s Day last Saturday night with a concert by the Hudson Valley Philharmonic String Quartet.

I’ve written previously about this group to the effect that its playing is remarkably fine when you consider that it isn’t a full-time ensemble. (Its members are all first chair players in the orchestra and they all teach in the area.) It’s time to drop these qualifications. The HVPSQ still isn’t a full-time string quartet, but its playing is certainly comparable with many such ensembles. In fact, I felt its playing Saturday was superior to a couple of the quartets that have played earlier in the Rhinebeck season, and those are full-time quartets. When a local ensemble holds its own with the best of the touring groups, that should be cause for considerable pride.

The program began a bit unpromisingly with Alexander Glazunov’s Five Novellettes, Op. 15. The lack of promise came from the music, not the playing. Glazunov, a Russian late romantic who ended his life as an exile in Paris, is remembered mostly for his syrupy but pleasant Violin Concerto. He also wrote loads of symphonies and string quartets, none of the ones I’ve heard showing very much originality. At least this was early Glazunov, which is usually the best. His late years were supposedly marred by a descent into severe alcoholism, and the music usually shows its effects in its lack of organization.

Each of the Novellettes is based on a different national style, but they’re all rather superficial and only light entertainment. The concluding piece, supposedly in Hungarian style, sounded thoroughly Russian, and it was very repetitious. Poor Glazunov doesn’t sound like the most intelligent of composers. The performance, however, brough out whatever charm remains in the music with a good deal of energy and verve.

Each Rhinebeck Chamber Music Society program this season features a 20th century work as its centerpiece. Saturday’s contemporary feature was a world premiere, the Quintet for Piano and Strings by Woodstock composer Robert Starer.

Unlike Glazunov, Starer’s music is always intelligent and often intellectually challenging. This piece is in a single rather long movement (about 22 minutes) divided into sections, most of which reappear. It would take several hearings to analyze the complex structure, but several aspects were quickly apparent. One was the way the piece alternates strongly rhythmic and lyrical sections. Another was the way each section was initiated by either the piano or the strings, and the way the leading element drew the other along into the new mood. Yet another was the appealing folklike nature of all the themes.

By the end of the piece, I felt I had been through a meaningful emotional journey. Pianist Kazuko Hayami, coping well with some considerable difficulties in her part, joined the HVPSQ in what seemed like a completely convincing performance. It’s always difficult to judge the playing of a piece you’ve never heard before, but I what I heard sounded as though the players knew what they were doing. The composer’s broad smile as he took his bows, in front of a very enthusiastic audience, would tend to confirm my guess. I hope we get to hear this music often enough to become truly familiar with it.

The music of Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924) isn’t nearly as familiar to us as it deserves to be. Most of Fauré’s major works are subtle, almost reclusive music that doesn’t reveal its secrets easily. But his Piano Quartet No. 1, in C Minor, Op. 15 is an exception. Apparently Fauré wrote it under the influence of a failed love affair, and for once his heart is on his sleeve in this outgoing, overtly romantic music. It’s a gorgeous piece, filled with appealing themes, and as a result it’s the most often performed of all of Fauré’s chamber works.

This music is far from easy to play. The piano part was written for a virtuoso, and the string writing is equally demanding. Also it requires difficult coordination, which has to sound effortless if the music is to be convincing.

All these demands were well met in Saturday’s performance. Perhaps the highlight was the touching, deeply felt playing of the Adagio, the movement that best expresses the theme of lost love. But the more vigorous movements were equally effective, and the brilliant final Allegro molto swept along to a thrilling conclusion, a most appropriate closing to a gratifying concert.

–Leslie Gerber

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