in: Reviews

May 24, 2017

Maternal Mortality and Small Forces

by

Brahms in 1853

Lifetime Learning Sounds of Music Performance Series showcased works by Debussy and Brahms last Monday at Temple Shalom in West Newton, with violinist Edward Wu, hornist Peter Kronheimer, and pianist Noam Elkies bringing depth and polish to the two pieces.

Debussy’s Violin Sonata was part of his final compositional effort. He had planned a series of six sonatas for combinations of instruments, and lived to complete three. This Sonata for Violin and Piano was his last major work and the last performance he gave, as pianist. He was laboring under tremendous strain: his mother had died a couple of years prior, WWI had been raging for several years, and Debussy himself was in constant pain from colon cancer.

Does the short Violin Sonata reflect personal anguish? Surely, and those struggles were admirably communicated by both musicians. The first movement contains brief motivic phrases suited to changing moods, its tonal centers varying between major and minor. The final measures are a struggle between instruments, with the piano asserting C major in a series of block chords while the violin’s whole-tone motifs assert independence. The movement ends abruptly. The second movement starts out playful, even roguish, with a middle section evoking dreaminess and resignation. The Finale contains virtuosic writing, particularly for the violin. Although it ends in G major, the crash of chords does not communicate triumph. Edward Wu effortlessly displayed skill with fire. The piano part contains much that sounds familiar from Debussy’s piano writing, i.e. polyrhythms, and arpeggios with notes unexpectedly deleted or added. Noam Elkies’s playing was sometimes light and ethereal, other times driving and assertive. Both artists handled the piece’s bravura writing as we think Debussy would have wanted, serving struggle and ongoing conflict, not victories.

Brahms’s Trio for Horn, Violin, and Piano was the second work, and it too was written shortly after the death of the composer’s mother. Brahms played horn as a child, so perhaps the instrumental choice paid homage to her. The composer wrote the piece for the natural or valveless horn, which created certain constraints. The main theme is built using only quarter and eighth notes on intervals no greater than a fifth. The resulting melodic outline has noble character. One of the challenges the modern hornist faces dynamic restraint. Peter Kronheimer accomplished this goal beautifully, never overpowering the other two instruments.

Following the nostalgic, contemplative first movement Brahms treats the listener to a high-spirited Scherzo, while the Trio is a country dance in ¾ time. Together the first two movements create a rustic atmosphere, evoking the outdoors and presumably the hunt. The third movement, Adagio mesto, forms the emotional centerpiece, the composer’s maternal elegy. The piano opens solo; the violin and horn enter together after four measures. Although the piano continues to play an important role, it is the partnership between the others that elevates this movement to a celestial sphere. Wu and Kronheimer brought off the ensemble seamlessly and in perfect balance. The final movement brings us back to earth with a joyous, heartfelt Allegro.

While the innovations of Debussy and Brahms have elements in common, this program displayed how each composer’s fresh way of utilizing the structures of Western music could serve wholly different emotional purposes. A wonderful, and rewarding, hour of listening.

Retired medical biology researcher Dinah Bodkin is a serious amateur pianist and mother of Groupmuse founder Sam Bodkin.

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