Music@Menlo Review by Gary R. Lemco (Brahms)

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Music@Menlo Review by Gary R. Lemco (Brahms)

Post by Lance » Wed Aug 24, 2011 6:31 pm

Music@Menlo: “Through Brahms”: Brahms the Prismatic
by Gary Lemco

An eclectic blend of chamber music and musicians gathered together at the 2011 Music@Menlo for the concert 26 July at The Center for Performing Arts at Menlo-Atherton. Under the aegis “Through Brahms,” the festival celebrates the composer through August 13 --having begun July 22 -- with a series of institutes, lectures, and recitals that involve the music of Brahms directly or that of his predecessors, contemporaries, and musical heirs.

The evening began with solo cellist Laurence Lesser--whom some will recall as having participated a generation ago in the Heifetz-Piatagorsky concerts--performing J.S. Bach’s Suite No. 2 in D Minor, BWV 1008. A relatively melancholy, even gloomy, piece, the suite received a pliant, reverent interpretation, often intimate in the manner of an extended prayer or pietistic meditation. Though its second minuet lightens the affect somewhat, the intensity and density of expression kept Lesser and the packed house in thrall: a severe, Stoical beginning to a program that would end most clangorously and triumphantly with the Brahms Two-Piano Sonata in F Minor, Op. 34b.

Music by Arnold Schoenberg ensued, his 1949 Phantasy for Violin and Piano, Op. 47, as performed by Ian Swensen, violin and Lucille Chung, piano. Schoenberg’s last instrumental piece, the relatively brief work condenses any number of 12-tone procedures into a staid, austere work that remains demanding, even punishing, in its syntax and sonority. In four major sections based on a through-composed idea, the piece has Schubert as a forebear. But as a purveyor of melodic tissue, the piece offers little; instead, it grant us brief riffs and any number of effects, harmonics, pizzicati, glissandi, that rather define an academic etude than a work to which we can become attached emotionally.

Serge Rachmaninov’s 1912 Vocalise, Op. 34, No. 14 provided the perfect tonic to the Schoenberg, consisting of a pure, unending melody that Wagner could embrace. Ian Swensen again plied the violin, here assisted by Alessio Bax, the young virtuoso whose recent Rachmaninov disc for Signum Classics has taken us cognoscenti by storm. Closing our eyes, we might imagine Nathan Milstein and Artur Balsam enacting the same romantic gestures and nostalgic intimacies two generations ago.

The first half concluded with an ambitious ensemble piece, John Harbison’s 1981 Piano Quintet, a work that moves in relatively neo-Classic, post-Stravinsky circles, aided and abetted by jazz energies. The dedication of the work mentions artist Georgia O’Keeffe, whose own work emanates alternate impressions of desert dust and florid patterns from the natural world around Sun Prairie, Wisconsin. The participants: Lucille Chung, piano; Jorja Fleezanis, violin; Ian Swensen, violin; Yura Lee, viola; and Laurence Lesser, cello--played the five-movement work with devotion and considerable bravura. Ms. Lee’s viola tone quite dominated the piece, as though its often concertante part were conceived with such a virtuoso--like Walter Trampler, its viola at the world premier--in mind. The movements are marked like the sections of a Baroque suite, the Overtura’s admitting the string quartet for some time before the piano entry. The Capriccio movement made a minor sensation with its fierce pizzicato riffs, the keyboard complementary in constant staccato or block-chord accompaniment. The Intermezzo conveyed a lullaby affect that gradually became impassioned. The tricky metrics of the Burletta definitely took their cue from Bartok or perhaps the Baba Yaga segment of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Last, the extended Elegia movement concluded the work; but for my money it went on too long. It gave us a false cadence-conclusion, then the solo piano took up a riff that developed among the various instruments, a prolixity that might be attributed to our friend Brahms, who shares a penchant for developing his codas. The audience, however did not seem to mind the “heavenly length” and applauded soundly.

The piece de resistance comprised the entire second half, the 1864 arrangement of the Brahms 2-Piano Sonata which eventually took shape as his Piano Quintet in F Minor, Op. 34a. Alessio Bax and Lucille Chung did the honors, playing as one homogenized whole whose keyboard sonorities often elicited symphonic proportions while simultaneously “deconstructing” the inner voices of the work as to reveal its motivic evolution in minute detail. Besides heavily “borrowing” miscellaneous works by Schubert, the sonata enjoys a “progressive” stance harmonically as a forerunner of the 12-tone procedure, especially in its last movement theme, which lacks only an A-flat to complete the “row.” Alternately stentorian and painfully intimate, the work took on a shattering, Bismarckian ethos in its third movement Scherzo, on of the few such athletic moments we have in the Brahms third-movement oeuvre. The last movement opens with truly disarming harmonies--adumbrating both Op. 119, No. 1 and much of Alban Berg--that we may have entered another world, quite detached from “Romance.” The impetus of the main theme--again a deep bow to Schubert’s C Major “Grand Duo” Sonata--had us rapt in the thick and often polyphonic textures that coiled and smoked in fiery passion, at least through the alchemical fingers of this evening’s gifted pianists. ♪

Gary R. Lemco is a regular contributor to
Classical Music Guide. He lives in California

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