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The NCSA Chamber Music Society presented a richly satisfying evening of diverse works by Johannes Brahms in the warm and intimate acoustics of the school's new Watson Chamber Music Hall on April 13. A large and enthusiastic audience served as an added encouragement to the performers, all of whom are members of the faculty and active touring musicians.
It is too bad more composers have not found the combination of lower voice, viola and piano attractive. Only a few songs, including Charles Martin Loeffler's Op. 5, come to mind. This "Age of Mezzo-sopranos" ought to ensure wider performances of Brahms's Zwei Gesänge, Op. 91. The combination of mezzo or contralto with the burnished tone colors of the viola and piano is very effective. A typical "autumnal" mood very much like that of Brahms' Third Symphony dominates "Gestillte Sehnsucht" ("Quieted Longing"), a setting of a poem by Friedrich Rückert. "Geistliches Wiegenlied" ("Sacred Cradle Song") is told from the point of view of Mary, who asks for help to sing the baby Jesus to sleep.
Both songs begin with unusually long preludes for the viola, described by Heather Platt in Leon Botstein's The Compleat Brahms as "a constant dialog, moving imitatively, in contrary motion, or with the viola embellishing the voice's melody, as though improvising around it." Violist Ulrich Eichenauer brought a full and opulent tone to his solo role and blended beautifully with the weightier, plush mezzo-soprano voice of Marion Pratnicki. Her diction was exemplary, and her high notes rang out where needed. The composer relegates the piano to a supporting role, mostly in its lower register, which gave Allison Gagon few opportunities to stand out.
Perhaps in compensation, Gagon took the more treble-dominated part in the two-piano version of the Variations of a Theme by Haydn, Op. 56b. Eric Larsen wielded a subtle and deep-colored tone palette on the second piano. Ensemble and phrasing were precise and tight while dynamics were well chosen. Their interpretation fit well with the autumnal mood of the other works on the program.
David Jolley, one of the finest current exponents of the horn, was joined by violinist Joseph Genualdi and pianist Larsen for a performance of the Trio in E-Flat, Op. 40. Brahms specified the older valveless Waldhorn because he preferred its sound and because he associated it with his childhood; the "hand horn" was one of four instruments he was taught by his father. Some writers postulate that the intense emotions of the slow movement reflect his grief for the then-recent death of his mother. These double connections with his youth contribute to some of the piece's introspective melancholy. For the intimate space of Watson Hall, Jolley kept his dynamics scaled back. His total technical control was a wonder to see and hear; every note was exact. The melodic line was like that of a singer, smoothly flowing with awesome sustained notes when needed. Despite having the piano lid fully up, Larsen's partnership was a model of perfect balance, never once covering either of his colleagues. With this reading and his December 1, 2003 , performance as part of the "Fleischer-Jolley-Tree-O" in Pinehurst, Jolley has given two of the finest live presentations of this work I have heard. He was more extroverted and used a wider range of dynamics in the larger and less responsive Pinehurst venue. Both performances were fascinating and fully satisfying looks at different facets of this masterpiece.