When you think of string quartet composers, Chick Corea probably isn’t the first name that pops into mind. But the pathbreaking jazz pianist — better known for his fusion music of the 1970s, when he headed the supergroup Return to Forever — has been venturing onto traditionally classical turf in recent years, and his jazzy, sophisticated “Adventures of Hippocrates” was the centerpiece of the Harlem String Quartet’s imaginative concert Wednesday night at the Terrace Theater, part of the Kennedy Center’s Fortas Chamber Music series.
The young Harlem players were joined by the pianist Misha Dichter for most of the program, and it proved a good match: Balanced, robust, flavorful playing was the hallmark of the evening. Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet in G Minor, Op. 57, opened the concert, and though it took the ensemble a few minutes to settle in (the Bach-inspired prelude and fugue that opens the work seemed a bit ungainly, and a little more bite would have sharpened the scherzo’s sardonic edge), it turned into a fine, full-blooded performance by the end.
Corea’s “Adventures of Hippocrates” (the title comes from one of L. Ron Hubbard’s science-fiction novels) moved things in a lighter direction. It’s a five-movement suite full of Corea’s darting, restless rhythms, dancing from a tango to a waltz to a ballad to a fast-moving finale, and the Harlem players brought it off with spirit and almost casual virtuosity. No wonder Corea invited the group to tour with him last year.
But it may have been Schumann’s passionate, lushly melodic Piano Quintet in E-flat, Op. 44, that stole the show. This is a work that’s often polished to a high gloss, but Dichter and the Harlem players adopted a down-to-earth, whole-grain approach, sacrificing delicacy for strength and resonance — a bravura performance that won them a standing ovation.