It may not have been Panthers versus Broncos, but to some of us Mozart versus Brahms is an even more satisfactory match-up, and the Society for Chamber Music in Rochester's pairing of two imposing quintets by these composers scored two touchdowns.
Mozart's G minor String Quintet (calling for a string quartet plus a second viola) has long been considered one of his, or any composer's, greatest chamber works, and a performance like last night's amply demonstrated why it's held in such esteem. G minor is a "storm and stress" key for Mozart, most memorably in the first movement of this quintet. Mozart can suggest tremendous unease and passion with the simplest of means -- a descending chromatic scale shared among the instruments, or a sudden beat of silence. In this opening allegro, passion is set in a perfectly proportioned framework; sensitive musicians realize there's no need to italicize anything.
The musicians performing the Mozart G Minor Quintet -- violinists Juliana Athayde and Thomas Rodgers, violists Philip Ying and Marc Anderson, and cellist Steven Doane -- realized this and created an ideal chamber music ensemble. They showed a command of the "big picture" of a long opening movement, with all of Mozart's delicious details for individual instruments in place. They also offered a refined and when necessary -- as in the slow movement and the long introduction to the finale -- extremely sensuous sound. (In the pre-concert presentation, both Athayde and Ying compared Mozart's chamber music to opera, quite correctly.) If there is anything more Mozartian than this elusive, alchemic combination of elegance and emotion, I don't know what it is. When you strike the balance, as the Society players did, you have a wonderfully memorable performance of a magnificent work.
The string players listed above (minus violist Anderson) were joined by pianist Chiao-Wen Cheng for another chamber music cornerstone, the Brahms F minor Piano Quintet. It's no less a masterpiece than the Mozart, but a very different animal to tame. As opposed to Mozart's open, luminous scoring, Brahms's textures tend toward the thick and complicated: like an overprotective father of four young daughters, the piano seldom allows the strings out without its escort, and can easily overshadow them.
If it is a problematic work, this group solved most of the problems admirably. Pianist and strings were finely balanced throughout and played with ardor and accuracy, particularly rhythmic accuracy -- the piece abounds in typically Brahmsian syncopations and cross rhythms, which were dispatched perfectly. (And in the few times they did play without the piano, the strings demonstrated the same fine-grained ensemble they showed in the Mozart.) As for ardor, the final two movements boiled over with it. The performance was so impetuous and energetic that the audience responded with that Rochester rarity, an immediate standing ovation.
This ideal chamber-music pairing had an ideal, and unexpected, introduction in Chiao-Wen Cheng's solo performance of three of Mendelssohn's "Songs without Words". Her solid, beautifully shaded performances gave the music surprising weight, belying any lavender-and-old-lace reputation these pieces have. These are about as close as Mendelssohn got to the Romantic emotional world of Schumann's piano music, and her playing made the connections clear.