Obscure Russian composers provide gems for Boulder Piano Quartet

Music by Sergei Taneyev and Anton Rubinstein at The Academy

By Peter Alexander Dec. 11 at 6:45 p.m.

There is not a lot of music written for piano quartet.

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Boulder Piano Quartet

No, not four pianos; the “piano quartet” is an ensemble of piano with violin, viola and cello. As such, it falls between the trio of piano, violin and cello, for which there is a rich repertoire, and the quintet of piano with strings in different combinations that became a major genre for Romantic composers.

To be sure, Mozart wrote works for piano quartet, and other composers have followed since. Still, there are not that many pieces for the combination, so groups like the Boulder Piano Quartet— David Korevaar, piano; Charles Wetherbee, violin; Matthew Dane, viola; and Thomas Heinrich, cello—sometimes turn to obscure composers to fill out their programs.

That is indeed the case for their next performance, Friday at the Academy in Boulder, featuring one work each by composers that Korevaar refers to as “the obscure Russians.”

Make no mistake, though: obscure does not translate to unskilled. The two composers—Sergei Taneyev and Anton Rubinstein—were not only among the most prominent Russian musicians and music educators of the 19thcentury, they were highly skilled composers. Taneyev was so skilled writing counterpoint that he was known as “The Russian Bach.” A close friend of Tchaikovsky, he is most remembered for his extensive chamber music output, including his one Piano Quartet

Rubinstein, founder of the St. Petersburg Conservatory of Music was one of the greatest piano virtuosos of the 19thcentury. He is best known for his showy piano pieces, but he also wrote 20 operas, six symphonies, and a host of chamber pieces—including again a single Piano Quartet

“Both Rubinstein and Taneyev represent what was known somewhat disparagingly in Russia as the ‘cosmopolitan school’ of Russian composition,” Korevaar says. “That is to say, they were not nationalists”—meaning they followed the standard European classical models of their times and did not incorporate real or imitated Russian folk music into their compositions. This is in contrast to other Russian musicians, including Borodin and Mussorgsky.

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Sergei Taneyev

“Taneyev’s music is very attractive,” Korevaar says. “It’s also very difficult to play. He’s extraordinarily demanding of his players. The string parts and the piano writing are formidably complex.

“He also loves to show off his contrapuntal acumen, so the last movement of the quartet is filled with all kinds of contrapuntal combinations. It includes a fugue, and the coda brings back every theme from the quartet and combines them in various clever ways.”

But there is more to Taneyev than complexity and counterpoint, Korevaar says. For one thing, he begins the Quartet in a particularly engaging way, “like ballet or opera where something dramatic is already happening,” before introducing the first major theme.

“I have to say, he wrote good tunes,” Korevaar adds. “[The Quartet] is long, but it’s worthwhile long, not tedious long. The last movement is very busy and exciting all the time, so it keeps us all moving.”

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Anton Rubinstein

Korevaar is equally excited to play the Rubinstein Quartet, which he did not know before learning it for Friday’s concert. “I’m very excited we’re playing it because it’s so beautiful,” he says. “It’s a marvelous example of mid-19th-century Romantic voice. It’s very mainstream, and so the last movement you would never have any reason to think it was written by a Russian.”

Rubinstein’s own virtuosity made his piano writing challenging. “Rubinstein was famous for having very large hands,” Korevaar says. “He does write for the piano in a way that is representative of big-handed composers—there’s a lot more [finger] extensions than some other composers would be using. But in the end, I think it’s beautiful piece.

“It’s kind of a gem.”

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Boulder Piano Quartet
David Korevaar, piano; Charles Wetherbee, violin; Matthew Dane, viola; and Thomas Heinrich, cello

Sergei Taneyev: Quartet in E major for piano and strings
Anton Rubinstein: Piano in C major for piano and strings

7 p.m., Friday, Dec. 14
The Academy, 970 Aurora Ave., Boulder
(Entrance at 833 10thSt.)

Free; RSVP in advance to ande@theacademyboulder.com

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Boulder Piano Quartet: free concerts at The Academy, March 9 and May 4

First-rate performances of interesting repertoire

By Peter Alexander March 4 at 11:30 p.m.

The Boulder Piano Quartet is hidden in plain sight.

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Boulder Piano Quartet

The group is made up of four well known, highly visible professionals from the front range area: violinist Charles Wetherbee and pianist David Korevaar from the CU College of Music, with violist Matthew Dane and cellist Thomas Heinrich. They present first-rate performances of interesting repertoire not often found on other concerts, and their concerts are free, making them the best chamber music deal you’ll find.

And yet they don’t have a very high profile, possibly because they don’t perform in the usual concert venues. Instead, they play at the Academy, a former girls’ school turned retirement community, which underwrites the concerts as enrichment for their residents. Performances are held in a former chapel, a large room with excellent acoustics, and are open to the public. Parking is easy to find in the neighborhood. Refreshments such as desserts or wine and cheese are provided at each performance.

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The Academy in Boulder

In other words, there is no downside.

For the current season the BPQ has prepared four programs of which two remain, at 7 p.m. Fridays March 9 and May 4. The performance Friday of this week features music by Joaquin Turina, Pierre Jalbert and Dvořák. In May the program will comprise two large-scale late Romantic works by Zdenek Fibich and Richard Strauss.

Formed in the early 2000s, the quartet originally performed under the auspices of the Boulder Public Library. “We performed fairly regularly for a number of years, but around eight or nine years ago the library’s relationship with the performing arts was changing and things slowed down (for the quartet),” pianist David Korevaar explains.

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Ruth Shanberge

More recently Ruth Shanberge, a patron of the arts and an Academy resident who passed away in 2017, arranged for Korevaar and violinist Charles Wetherbee to present chamber music at the Academy. That became the impetus to re-start the quartet.

“Ruth was all about music and its role in culture,” Korevaar says. “Bringing music to the Academy was an important mission for her. That’s why we are now in our third season of presenting concerts (there). This has been a wonderful arrangement for us, because the Academy has been very welcoming and supportive of what we do.”

The repertoire for piano quartet (violin, viola, cello and piano) is less well known than that for piano trio (violin, cello and piano). “It’s nothing like as rich as the trio repertoire,” Korevaar says, “but the quartet repertoire is extremely good. One of the things we’ve been trying to do is get outside of what would be standard for the piano quartet.”

The central works for piano quartet are two quartets by Mozart, plus three works by Brahms, one by Schumann and two by Dvořák. But as you move into the 20th century there are many more works to chose from, some of which are on the upcoming concerts.

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Composer Pierre Jalbert

Of the works on Friday’s concert, Turina’s Piano Quartet was written in 1932, and Jalbert’s Secret Alchemy was premiered in 2012. The former is “a wonderful typical Turina piece, filled with Spanish bullfighter music,” Korevaar says. “It’s a wonderful piece. It’s not complex, it’s very attractive, and it’s beautifully put together and beautifully written for the ensemble. It’s quite fresh and it’s beautiful music.”

Jalbert currently teaches composition at Rice University and is known for his creative use of musical colors. The atmospheric movements of Secret Alchemy have suggestive titles, including “Mystical,” “Timeless, mysterious, reverberant” and “With great energy.”

The third piece on the program Friday is Dvořák’s First Piano Quartet. Even though it is one of the standard pieces for piano quartet, it is rarely performed. “A very beautiful piece, it does have some structural oddities,” Korevaar says. “The last movement is quite eccentric, but the music is beautiful, and it’s texturally very inventive. He does remarkable things in terms of each instrument and how he puts them together.”

The BPQ’s final concert of the spring will feature two works form the end of the 19th century, the Piano Quartet in E minor by Fibich and the Piano Quartet in C minor, an early work by Strauss. “That’s a very friendly program,” Korevaar says. ”It’s all this very central European kind of music. The gemütlickeit (warmth, or geniality) is very real, in the case of both of those pieces. So I think it’s an easy listening program.”

Of the two, the Strauss is the more difficult for the players. “Strauss likes to write to the extremes of all the instruments,” Korevaar says “As in his orchestral music, he’s interested in virtuosity. Everybody’s got a lot to do, and that makes it difficult to put together. But the music is wonderful.”

Although the Academy is a non-traditional location for concerts, Korevaar likes to play there. “It’s a slightly unconventional concert space, this former chapel in what was a girls’ school,” he says. “But it’s a wonderful space for chamber music. It’s a perfect large salon with a very high ceiling. The acoustics are very warm, and the strings sound great in that room.

“It’s a rewarding place to play, and there’s always a great ambience there.”

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Boulder Piano Quartet
Charles Wetherbee, violin
Matthew Dane, viola
Thomas Heinrich, cello
David Korevaar, piano

7 p.m. Friday, March 9
Chapel Hall, The Academy, 970 Aurora Ave. (entrance off 10th St.), Boulder
Joaquin Turina: Piano Quartet
Pierre Jalbert: Secret Alchemy
Antonin Dvořák: Piano Quartet No. 1 in D major
Admission is free, but audience members are asked to RSVP at 303-938-1920.

7 p.m. Friday, May 4
Chapel Hall, The Academy, 970 Aurora Ave. (entrance off 10th St.), Boulder
Zdenek Fibich: Piano Quartet in E minor
Richard Strauss: Piano Quartet in C minor
Admission is free, but audience members are asked to RSVP at 303-938-1920.