Some 50-60 people were in attendance in Carswell Recital Hall on the Meredith College campus on the evening of January 13 for a program of chamber music by Johannes Brahms put together by Frank Pittman of the college’s piano faculty. The roughly 80-minute program, given without an intermission, featured two of the composer’s fairly early and large-even if not for large-scale forces-works.

Opening the proceedings was the Sonata for Two Pianos in F Minor, Op. 34b, composed in 1864. The work started out its compositional journey as a string quintet, but violinist and lifelong friend Joseph Joachim criticized it heavily, so Brahms suppressed that version and re-worked the piece into the sonata that he premièred with Karl Tausig at the second piano. Clara Schumann criticized this version as too percussive without the strings, so Brahms reworked it yet again as a piano quintet, which he published in the same year as Op. 34. The sonata was not published until 1871, but Brahms gave it the Op. 34b number because he did not believe it deserved a number all its own and since it was an adaptation of another published work, in spite of its being in fact the predecessor, which would thus logically make the quintet the “b.”

Pianist Mary Ann Bills, staff accompanist at the NCSA and adjunct at Wake Forest University among other things, was at the other piano, playing the piano 1 score with Pittman playing piano 2. Both artists view themselves more as accompanists than as solo performers (not that they don’t give solo recitals, of course) and, consequently, communication between them and responsiveness to each other seemed particularly good. There was no contest to outshine, and they were always in sync and matched dynamics well, making for a very enjoyable listening experience, even if this reviewer tends to agree with Clara Schumann. 

The second work was the Piano Quartet in G Minor, Op. 25, composed in 1861 and premièred that year in Hamburg with Clara at the piano. (Brahms himself played for the Vienna première exactly one year later.) Pittman was joined by violinist Tasi Matthews, Concertmaster of the Raleigh Symphony Orchestra among other assignments, violist Alexandra Glinkowski, an area free-lancer, and cellist Brent Wissick, of the UNC-Chapel Hill faculty. Hence, this was a “pick-up” quartet; they had rehearsed together only three times and this was the first public performance. The program will be repeated in Greensboro in about two weeks (see our calendar). The ensemble was excellent, and the players matched each other well dynamically. Schoenberg reputedly complained about the overpowering of the strings by the piano in performances of the work and orchestrated it to overcome this. In his program notes, Pittman stated his goal to prove Schoenberg wrong, and on the whole, did so.

Although he certainly wouldn’t seek out such an experience, this reviewer happened also to have heard the same work performed the very same afternoon – how often does that occur in this area in two venues a mile apart? – in a recital at the NCMA, reviewed elsewhere on this site by colleagues Joe and Elizabeth Kahn, who were not in attendance at Meredith. It is impossible for me not to compare the two performances and likewise the auditory experience in the two halls. Both halls are brick with raised hardwood stages; both have carpeting only in the aisles. They are different in both size and shape, however, with Carswell about half the size and wide and shallow as opposed to the NCMA auditorium’s shoe-box design, and with Carswell having a metal ceiling twice as high as the NCMA’s dropped ceiling tiles. In Carswell, it seemed easier to distinguish the individual voices in non-unison sections than was the case at the NCMA. But Carswell is much, much brighter than the NCMA auditorium, consequently amplifying the percussiveness of the piano, most noticeably in the forte passages, of course, and giving greater reverberation. Thus, the sound in the NCMA hall is perhaps more like it would be in a salon that would be the standard venue for chamber music and that Brahms might have had in mind. 

Pittman’s group took all the tempi at a faster rate than did the McIver Ensemble (at the NCMA), making the latter group seem sluggish to me in recall, and giving the work more energy and life. The hall gave the Meredith performance a richer blend of sound for my ears. Pittman’s group also seemed to play with a bit more feeling, although by no means with the overwrought romanticism with which Brahms’ music is all too often invested, even if some moments seemed somewhat rousing. Overall, I found this performance a bit more satisfying and pleasing and a bit better suited to the size of the work, but the other had its great aspects and moments, too. Not being an instrumental musician, I do not consider myself an expert in technique, but I felt that this group as a whole had a slight technical edge as well. If I had to describe the two in just one word, I would call the McIver’s rendition “stately” and this one “energetic.”

This was a really fine and pleasant evening. Pittman played the best I have ever heard him play, and he was very obviously loving what he was doing and very much in his element. The program notes that he prepared were written as a mini-essay. They read well and gave historical details and pertinent information about the works in an interesting and relatively succinct form. They were, however, slightly marred by some grammatical errors.