Thanks to artful interpretations by the Zukerman Chamber Players, the Toronto Summer Music Festival audience at Koerner Hall on Tuesday night experienced the full range of expression that chamber music is capable of.
The piano quintet can convey an incredible range of musical ideas, and violinists Pinchas Zukerman and Jessica Linnebach, Jethro Marks on viola, Amanda Forsyth on cello, and pianist Angela Cheng were outstanding in their ability to bring those ideas to life.
A small ensemble made up of piano and string quartet came into its own during the 19th century, a time when the string quartet was firmly established as a popular format for private chamber performances. Developments in the design of the piano gave the instrument an orchestra-like range that worked nicely in a chamber setting.
The combination is a musical force not to be taken lightly.
On Tuesday’s programme were two pieces written a century apart: Dimitri Shostakovich’s Quintet in G minor, Op. 57 (1940), and Robert Schumann’s Quintet in E-flat Major, Op. 44 (1842). Both are the only quintets each composer wrote, and both showcase the musical styles they are known for.
Shostakovich’s quintet is a particularly personal piece. He wrote it knowing he would be performing on the piano alongside the Beethoven Quartet, his close collaborators and friends.
In the capable hands of the Zukerman Chamber Players, the piece’s singing melodies, distinctive turns in harmony and haunting frenzies transported us to the dark days of Joseph Stalin’s terrifying dictatorship.
Schumann’s quintet made an excellent contrast as it showcased his distinctive, whimsical play with musical ideas and dramatic flair.
The energy of each performer was palpable. At times, they left the impression there was a much larger ensemble in the hall. They also visibly had great fun playing a well-loved composition.
Zukerman’s seemingly effortless virtuosity and Linnebach’s own distinctive sound frequently combined mysteriously to add something that sounded like a third violin in the group.
Forsyth and Marks both shone, carefully allowing each other’s musical lines to be heard in spite of a shared range.
The piano, which can sometimes be taken for granted, especially with such a high-powered string players, held its own. Angela Cheng’s playing added a rich sonic layer marked by subtlety and nuance.
Margaret Lam is a music researcher and writer. You can find her on margism.com.