Friends open Manchester Music Festival

by Jim Lowe

They played like they had known each other for decades, opening Manchester Music Festival’s 2017 season Thursday at the Southern Vermont Art Center — perhaps because they had.

Pianist Adam Neiman, the festival’s new artistic director, and his excellent colleagues — violinist Stefan Milenkovich, violist Che-Yen (Brian) Chen and cellist Bion Tsang — proved their mettle in a brilliantly rhapsodic performance of Richard Strauss’s youthful Piano Quartet in C minor, Op. 13.

Their sheer joy and deeply personal sense of ensemble, to say nothing of virtuosity, resulted in a performance of this not-quite-a-masterpiece that was both exciting and sheer pleasure.

Tsang’s cello was not only expressive, but provided the bedrock.

Neiman is an able pianist, and he played with power and clarity, and a convincing musical sense throughout. Violinist Milenkovich’s understated expressiveness drew the listener in, while Chen’s overt viola expressiveness brought out the inner lines. And Tsang’s cello was not only expressive, but provided the bedrock. Most importantly, the four played together with a collegial comfort that allowed them to share the work’s unfettered passion and joy. In particular, the slow movement, Andante, was richly exquisite. The four applied these same qualities to one of the great masterpieces of the repertoire, Mozart’s Piano Quartet No. 2 in E-flat Major, K. 493. Although some unwarranted rhythmic freedom and flourishes (“ornaments”) by Neiman proved distracting, the playing was virtuosic and expressive, yet respectful of Classical era strictures. In short, it was elegant and at the same time muscular — a compelling performance.

The program opened with Beethoven’s String Trio No. 3 in C minor, Op. 9, No. 3, a precursor to his great string quartets. This is delightful music and these three delighted in its intimacy. The playing not only combined — as Beethoven does — muscularity and lyricism, it proved simply a pleasure.

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