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Melvin Chen and the St. Petersburg String Quartet at Music Mountain

Music review
by Stephen Kaye
Mon Aug 22nd, 2016

Pianist Melvin Chen

Melvin Chen, Deputy Dean of the Yale School of Music and a professor of piano, led the St. Petersburg Quartet through a stirring rendition of Brahms’ Piano Quartet in C Minor Sunday afternoon at Music Mountain.  Before the Brahms he played four short pieces of charm and wit that were selected for their use of coded language to play homage to older composers.  Three were by the French composers Poulenc, Ravel, and Debussy who honored Bach and Haydn.  Mario Castelnuevo-Tedsco honored Andre Previn.  In each, notes played out the names of the composer being honored. Chen played these with joy and care.  Debussy’s Homage á Haydn of 1909 was a little gem. 

The string quartet played Shostakovich’s Eighth String Quartet, bringing out the intense sadness that the composer experienced in seeing bombed out Dresden in 1960.  He recalls the feelings of horror he himself experienced in WWII and the personal sadness experienced in his own life.  The music is direct, powerful and disturbing.  The players led by Alla Aranovskaya on first violin were worshipful in rendering this magnificent music.

The giant of the afternoon was the C Minor Piano Quartet composed when Brahms was 28 and in love with Clara Schumann.  In the first movement, Melvin Chen brought out youthful exuberance, playing brightly and then tenderly.  Contrasts were a real part of Chen’s approach.  We noted contrasts in tempo and dynamics that contributed to revealing Brahms’ differing moods.  Brisk dialogue between piano and strings mixed with solos and short bursts of ensemble playing that showed real togetherness.  What all the players displayed was love for this music—they played it with love and respect.  We left the concert feeling rewarded and enriched.