The Atlanta Chamber Players performed a concert of music by Prokofiev and Schumann at the Shakespeare Tavern Playhouse Tuesday evening. The group’s special guest was Cuban-born violinist Andrés Cárdenes, professor of violin at Carnegie Mellon University School of Music in Pittsburgh, who over the course of his career has been active as violinist, violist, teacher, conductor and concertmaster.
Cárdenes received a second prize in the 1982 Tchaikovsky International Violin Competition in Moscow, and has appeared as soloist with an extensive list of orchestras on four continents. As a chamber musician, Cárdenes is actively a member of both the Carnegie Mellon Piano Trio, with cellist Anne Martindale Williams and pianist David Deveau, and of the esteemed Diaz Trio, along with violist Roberto Díaz and cellist Andrés Díaz — Chilean-born brothers who grew up in Atlanta and are well-known to the city’s longtime classical music patrons.
Elizabeth Pridgen, the Atlanta Chamber Players’ artistic director and pianist, first performed with Cárdenes in the very early years of the McDuffie Center for Strings at Mercer University down in Macon, thanks to a visit there by the Diaz String Trio. In the years since, Cárdenes and Pridgen crossed paths again at music festivals, last performing together in 2015 at the Highlands-Cashiers Chamber Music Festival, where they joined forces with Emory University’s Vega Quartet to perform Ernest Chausson’s Concerto for Violin, Piano and String Quartet. The performance inspired them all to record an album that included that work, plus Cárdenes and Pridgen playing the Violin Sonata of Gabriel Fauré — a recording to be released on the Artek Recordings label in early 2018. It’s only natural that Pridgen would call upon Cárdenes to appear with Atlanta Chamber Players.
Cárdenes and Pridgen opened Tuesday’s program with “Five Melodies” by Sergei Prokofiev, a rather lyrical excursion, and no wonder: Prokofiev originally wrote the pieces as vocalises for Ukrainian soprano Nina Koshetz in 1920, as “Five Songs without Words,” two years after he fled the October Revolution and came to the United States for a while to try to secure a professional foothold in this country as a composer and pianist. In 1925 Prokofiev reworked these exquisite miniatures, idiomatically adapting them for violin and piano, with the violin part incorporating such characteristic nonvocal techniques as double stops, pizzicati and harmonics, and a range far beyond the capacity of a human voice.
Even so, it is their lyrical, vocal quality that predominates throughout, and Cárdenes played to that dynamic with a lovely, liquid tone that focused on its attractive detail and intimate musical qualities, with Pridgen’s piano supporting that well. Indeed they could have taken the familiar path and chosen a boisterous work with which to raise the curtain, but took the high road instead.
A more rambunctious tone came soon enough, a contrasting work by Prokofiev. His “Quintet” was scored for an oddly mixed instrumentation, and skillfully performed by the musicians assembled to play it: oboist Elizabeth Tiscione, clarinetist Alcides Rodriguez, violinist Helen Hwaya Kim, violist Catherine Lynn and bassist Daniel Tosky. The piece is both circusy in demeanor and on the farther extreme of Prokofiev’s stylistic range with clashing harmonies and often irrepressibly irregular meters and rhythms.
The circus-like feeling is intentional, as the music was originally intended for a ballet entitled Trapeze. But the financially strapped dance troupe that commissioned it and could only afford to hire five musicians to play it found Prokofiev’s score difficult to dance to. He reworked most of the music into a concert piece, this “Quintet,” retaining the unusual grouping of instruments that the dance company had at hand — which makes for peculiarly unhomogenized sonority, giving the music a rather rough-and-tumble kind of quirky playfulness and pithy humor that one might find among a traveling troupe of acrobats, jugglers, clowns and entertainers.
A much more traditionally scored quintet came after intermission, with Cárdenes, Kim, Lynn and Pridgen returning to the stage along with cellist Brad Ritchie to perform Robert Schumann’s extroverted, full-bodied Piano Quintet in E-flat major, Op. 44, a significant piece of the 19th-century chamber music canon and one of the composer’s best works.
The group’s robust, exuberant performance was on solid ground, with a warm and nicely unified tonal palette among the strings, well-embraced and balanced by the substantive piano part. It proved an elateful ending to an interesting mid-week concert by one of the city’s most dedicated chamber ensembles. As for violinist Cárdenes, it would be a welcomed notion for him to return to Atlanta in the near future for a full-fledged recital with Pridgen at the piano. Perhaps they could play the Fauré Sonata they recorded, along with a few similarly substantial works for violin and piano.