Pianist Misha Dichter and the Harlem String Quartet, who have been touring together for some time, are odd bedfellows. On their own, as they were for two of the works on Friday’s program at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center’s small Gildenhorn Recital Hall, they resided comfortably within their own musical universes — Dichter powering his way through the thicket of the Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody No. 15 (the “Rakoczi March”) and the quartet, with its gifts of color and delicacy, presiding sensitively over the introspection and resignation of Turina’s “The Bullfighter’s Prayer.”
Most of the program, however, was given over to two of the canon’s biggest romantic piano quintets, by Brahms and Dvorak, and here the struggle played itself out.
Dichter never really let up on the passion and ferocity that interrupts the lyrical opening of the Brahms. Climax was piled on climax, and the only respite came in the second movement Andante where inner voices could actually be heard and textures differentiated. The Harlem ensemble played along with this, but not always comfortably. This is an ensemble with a huge, warm sound (Juan-Miguel Hernandez’s viola produces a tone easily as rich and full of depth as most cellists manage), so the members had no trouble matching Dichter in volume. But to approximate Dichter’s romantic impulses, they resorted to the fussy massaging of every note. Lines came out sounding lumpy, and there was little sense of musical flow. Where Dichter seemed to be responding to an inner romantic light (albeit an idiosyncratic one), the quartet’s musicmaking sounded less inspired than premeditated — a group trying to follow its keyboard leader wherever he ventured.
Much the same could be said about the Dvorak that ended the concert. This is a more forgiving piece, however, and the Bohemian jolliness that infuses its last two movements emerged largely intact.