New Music, New Albums Review: Evgeny Kissin and Emerson Quartet Rise to Each Other’s Challenges

Posted April 29, 2018 5:55 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — The Russian-born pianist Evgeny Kissin makes infrequent public appearances playing chamber music at all (do I recall a Schubert “Trout” Quintet in a small New York hall some years back?), let alone a whole evening of it. So it was not surprising that he took top billing in a collaboration with the Emerson String Quartet at Carnegie Hall on Friday evening.

But those strong, veteran string players — Philip Setzer and Eugene Drucker, violinists; Lawrence Dutton, violist; and Paul Watkins, cellist — seemed ideally matched with the commanding pianist, and they had evidently achieved instant rapport. It was a grand occasion, and a formidably equipped recording team was there to document it.

The program offered a well-varied cross-section of the standard repertoire for piano and three or four strings: Mozart’s Piano Quartet in G minor (with Setzer), Fauré's Piano Quartet No. 1 (with Drucker) and Dvorak’s Piano Quintet No. 2.

The Mozart, with an opening string attack that sets up heavy drama in the first movement, is a cornerstone of the piano-quartet repertory. Fauré's quartet is perhaps the strongest of his chamber works, or so these players made it sound. And the Dvorak quintet is deeply memorable, mainly for its long and involved slow movement — a dumka, a form drawn from Ukrainian song favored by Dvorak — with its haunting motto.

Kissin was a dynamo, spurring the Emerson players to take risks or one-upping the challenges they set. But he was no less impressive in his restraint where called for, spinning out rippling passagework with an unfailingly fine, even touch.

The Emersons, too, were as melting individually, singing limpid, sinuous melodies, as they were powerful in their unified outbursts.

Though Carnegie has long presented small- and medium-scaled chamber groups, their success is not a given in so large a hall. This is not a simple matter. In the end, it comes down to how well the performers project the sound from the stage, an arcane science in itself, and there were no problems here.

One thing is for sure: You wouldn’t have wanted to be trapped in a small room with the encore, the Scherzo of Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet. With each at his most percussive, the players all but lifted the lid off the hall. It made you want to hear the whole piece.

And yes, why don’t these players come together again, repeatedly, to explore the rich piano quintet literature, starting with Brahms, Schumann and Erno Dohnanyi’s No. 1?