Chamber Music Review

NCSA Faculty Celebrate Brahms' Birthday... Mostly

May 3, 2008 - Winston-Salem, NC:

As we well know, all programs are subject to change without notice. Somewhere along the line, an North Carolina School of the Arts faculty "Brahms Birthday Concert" program had its personnel shuffled, and drifted more toward becoming a viola recital. Two works by Brahms sandwiched two unusual and rewarding pieces by Paul Hindemith (1895-1963) and Frank Bridge (1879-1941).

Soprano Marilyn Taylor and pianist Allison Gagnon were featured in six diverse songs by Johannes Brahms (1833-97). The piano's lid was in the fully raised position but Gagnon seemed to balance its volume effortlessly so as never to cover Taylor's vocal line no matter how soft the dynamic. There was nothing reticent about her ability to bring out the articulation, color, or rhythm of the keyboard part. Taylor's diction was outstanding as was her intonation and phrasing. She sang without score with restrained use of gestures. She was more physically active in the opening song "Vergebliches Ständchen" (A futile serenade). Its stanzas alternate between a maiden and her lover who seeks unsuccessfully to be let into her room. Taylor fully conveyed both characters in this little comedy. Three of the songs were melancholy and slow, reflecting texts about thwarted love or meditations upon death. The fourth song, "Meine Liebe is Grün" (My Love is Green) is rhapsodic while the last, "Von ewiger Liebe" (Of Love Unending) is dramatic with intensity building over its three sections.

Hindemith's reputation has suffered from his polemics against the New Music that dominated much of the twentieth century, and from his prolific compositions. Genuine masterpieces are overrun by very workmanlike works. Luckily, Sonata in F Major for Viola and Piano, Op. 11, No. 4, is one of the former. Hindemith was a superb violist and his technical skill informs every bar of this romantic sonata. A wide-ranging Fantasy movement is followed by two movements involving theme and variations. Violist Sheila Browne has an impressive array of accomplishments as a soloist and chamber musician. She played with a lush, warm tone and produced a plethora of instrumental color. No matter how softly she played, her sound easily filled Watson Chamber Music Hall. Her intonation was precise regardless of how fast or loud the score was marked. Gagnon accompanied superbly. One of the more memorable parts is the back-and forth trading of a haunting tune between the two instruments in the last movement.

The real find of the program was the Lament for Two Violas by Frank Bridge, best known as the teacher of Benjamin Britten. It is a warmly romantic three-part instrumental song about eight minutes long. The first viola opens with an eloquent and spacious solo. Joining in counterpoint, the second viola and the first weave a haunting musical dialogue, exploring textures and subtle harmonies. One of the many delights of the performance occurred late in the piece when Browne's singing line was supported by second violist Joseph Genualdi's pizzicatos only to be followed by a reversal of roles.

After Brahms completed his String Quintet in G Major, Op. 111, in the summer of 1890, the composer sent a note to his publisher Fritz Simrock saying, "The time has come for you to say goodbye to any further compositions from me." The superb musicianship of the Meiningen Court Orchestra's clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld rejuvenated Brahms appetite for composition, leading to the Clarinet Trio, Op. 114, the Clarinet Quintet, Op. 115, and two Clarinet Sonatas, Op. 120. The composer sanctioned and personally prepared alternate versions of Op. 120 for violin and viola. The violin versions are seldom heard but viola versions are delightful. The performance of the Sonata No. 1 in F Minor for Viola and Piano by Browne and Gagnon was gorgeous and sublime. Browne's full, plangent, and rich sound is ideal for late Brahms' scores.

Note: the source of the Brahms quotation in the last paragraph is Harris Goldsmith's program notes to the long-out-of-print Stradivari SCD 6097 Brahms: Sonatas, Intermezzos, and Capriccio, featuring Nobuko Imai, viola and Harris Goldsmith, piano.