By Laurence Vittes
Imagine an 18-minute piano quintet in which the central movement is a seven-minute-long, slow Kyrie second movement and the three flanking movements are brilliant short tours de force—you’ve got Pierre Jalbert’s Piano Quintet.
Jalbert’s Quintet is one of four emotionally charged, transcendently beautiful works on the Jupiter String Quartet‘s new album, Alchemy, with Australian pianist Bernadette Harvey. Pieces include: Jalbert’s Quintet and Secret Alchemy for violin, viola, cello, and piano (2012); Steven Stuckey’s romantic Piano Quartet (2005); and Carl Vine’s exhilarating Fantasia for Piano Quintet (2013).
All but Secret Alchemy are world premiere recordings. The recordings were made during three days in May 2018 in Foellinger Great Hall at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana, where the quartet, made up of violinists Nelson Lee and Meg Freivogel, violist Liz Freivogel, and cellist Daniel McDonough, are in residence, maintaining private studios and directing the chamber music program.
I spoke to violist Liz Freivogel and violinist Nelson Lee.
Violists always have a different line of sight (harmonically speaking) into what’s going on. What does this music look like from the violist’s point of view?
FREIVOGEL That’s a good question. It’s very interesting being either of the inner voices to see how a composer thinks. In the Jalbert the texture is more spare in the way he uses the piano; as opposed to Brahms whose quintet uses the piano to create a thick texture and a big cushion of sound. Jalbert uses the piano almost like one among five equal voices. From inside the textures are transparent, and he also writes lots of unison and ostinato.
Carl Vines’ Fantasia also has some really lovely lines for the inner voices. Like the beautiful opening conversation between the violin and viola—I always love lines like that. The Vines was the most complex and rhythmically challenging; we spent a lot of time rebarring and trying to make things settle in our heads.
How do you put emotion into four pieces of music that according to the composers’ program notes are primarily abstract in their conceptualization.
LEE Our goal as performers is to find emotional connection with music. We put ourselves in the composers’ shoes, try to understand what they want to convey, and then hope to find our truest emotional response. If the music is written is in a strong, emotional way, we can feel it. We have to feel it, or else it’s difficult to play.
FREIVOGEL Emotion? We just assume it’s there. Or we explore. In the middle of the Vines, we were struggling on how to shape the most dreamscapey part, so Bernadette called Vines up and he said, “Just play the piece and let it happen.” It worked. We actually worked with Jalbert on several occasions, and he was also very willing to listen to our ideas; sometimes he liked ours better. It can be that way with composers. Of course, as we teach our students, musicians should never perform something without having a very specific idea of its emotion and what shade of emotion; it can’t be “happy” or “sad”, it has to be much more specific.
Have you continued to work with Jalbert on his quintet since you gave the premiere?
LEE Since we premiered his quintet we’ve performed it several other times at other places, and he came to all these performances, so we could play it through for him to get his input. He also wanted to speak to the audiences, which was very valuable. The adjustments we made were primarily related to balance and what he wanted to hear at each particular moment. It was also really eye opening to learn how the balances were from the audience’s perspective; it’s always good to have an expert set of ears.
What tips do you have for students who might want to learn this music?
LEE I think high level groups would enjoy working on them. In both Jalbert works the challenges are getting the atmospheres magical and poignant. His music can be spare, and he uses lots of extended techniques, sul ponticello, and so on, so that it takes a lot of detail work in terms of matching with each other. Vines’ Fantasia is also well written for the instruments, melodic and beautiful, a fun piece for students.
I noticed you left ten seconds of silence in between each track. How do you determine how much time to take between movements at concerts?
FREIVOGEL We talk about that beforehand, about what the composer had in mind. In the Stucky with its stream of consciousness effect, we talked about whether we should we be holding the tension, keeping our instruments up and not relaxing. In the Jalbert we also wanted more tension between the third and fourth, not putting down our instruments and tuning. On the other hand, where we needed an emotional break, we paused between movements. When you listen on recordings, you lose all that—especially if you have it on shuffle.