in: Reviews

August 6, 2012

Brahms’s Tricky Mindset Caught in One of Three


The Foundation for Chinese Performing Arts, under its founder and president Cathy Chan, has produced, both quantitatively and qualitatively, a formidable program of concerts since its founding 23 years ago. Not the least of its contributions has been the music festival it has sponsored since 1990 at the Walnut Hill School in Natick, which in many respects resembles the summer-school-cum-concert-series format of the many festivals in far-flung corners of New England. This one, however, being in the Boston suburbs, is far more accessible to those tourists as well as locals who find themselves in town over the summer. This year’s festival began on July 26 and concludes on August 17, with several more concerts yet to come: check the BMInt “Upcoming Events.”

Many, if not most, of the festival’s concerts feature young Chinese or Chinese-American professional musicians, and so it was on August 4th , with a program of all three Brahms violin sonatas performed by Amanda Wang, violin, and Vincent Cheung, piano. While both artists are active performers in the Boston area, an interesting feature of their biographies is that they have technical backgrounds as well. Wang received her undergraduate degree from MIT in electrical engineering before embarking on more conventional musical graduate programs, and she is now a doctoral student at BU under Lynn Chang and Bayla Keyes. A Hong Kong native who grew up in Vancouver, Cheung, having taken a licentiate from the Royal Schools of Music in London and being a founder and pianist for the Pythagoras Trio, is by day actually a post-doc researcher in biometrical engineering at MIT.

The recital by Wang and Cheung took place on the beautiful Walnut Hill campus in the Arts-and-Crafts Boswell Recital Hall, an intimate room seating maybe 65; it is comfortably air conditioned, in blessed contrast to many of the rustic settings used by festivals in up-country New England. The room eventually came close to filling its not very capacious capacity with a large contingent of the festival’s mostly high-school-aged students and a handful of apparent outsiders.

The performers took it straight from the top with the Sonata No. 1 in G Major, op. 78, our personal favorite of the three. The Brahms sonatas, as a set, present an interesting view into its composer’s ethos. To begin with, as is apparent from No. 1’s opus number, Brahms waited even longer to present a violin sonata than he did to finish a symphony (he trashed at least three earlier attempts). The Sonata No. 1 embodies Brahms’s growing fascination with cyclicality and his ability, unparalleled since Haydn, to deepen and enrich the simplest of materials — in this case, materials from two songs written some years earlier, one of which, the Rain Song, gives this sonata its occasional sobriquet of the “Rain Sonata.” While Honegger subtitled his Fifth Symphony “Di tre re” for the repeated D’s (re in Italian) at each movement’s end, this sonata makes its three-D motto the unifying element throughout the work, but, characteristically, as a seemingly unobtrusive pick-up. Most of the work emphasizes the dreamy, poignant side of the composer, picking up from Schumann’s Eusebius; the same is true of the op. 100 A -Major sonata (whose key the concert program misidentified). Only the third, D-minor sonata, op. 108, offers the kind of “public” profile of the symphonies, concertos, and some of the larger chamber works.

To present all three sonatas in one sitting thus requires, in addition to unyielding virtuosity (especially in Nos. 2 and 3), a commitment to inhabit Brahms’s mindset as “the poet of regret” (we believe that to be Michael Steinberg’s phrase). Brahms seems to have been that way from early adulthood, though this is not the mind of a brash youth but one of middle age and, by the standards of his day, of senescence. For young performers like Wang and Cheung, getting this tone just right presents a formidable challenge, and in meeting it they were only partly successful. The first thing to be said is that there was no question of technique. Wang produces a full, sonorous, perfectly centered tone with awesome bow control and ample power, an advance, we would say, from the typical sweet-but-recessive Boston violinist style. Only her pizzicato, which assumes importance in the slow movements of the first and second sonatas, failed to resonate; though she did well in the scherzo of the Third Sonata. Cheung was by turns nimble and powerful, sometimes too much the latter, with his resonant and booming Steinway flaunting a little too much mojo at full stick in that small room. His pedaling was almost always well judged. In short, the problems we had were almost entirely æsthetic ones: too loud, too forward (though mercifully not too fast) and in the first two sonatas, insufficiently innig, although the slow movement of the second sonata, an alternation between soulfulness and impishness after Brahms’s beloved Hungarian style, came off quite effectively.

The Third Sonata is the one players crave, with its drama, passion, knockout slow-movement tune, and virtuosic finale. Completed in 1887 or 1888 (Brahms was only 55, but he was always old before his time), this ought to be old folks’ music, but its fire, held in check of course by the composer’s mature, jam-packed concision, appeals to the young. And so it was with Wang and Cheung: their performance was stellar, their concentration equal to Brahms’s, and here the wistful lyricism that eluded them in the first two sonatas was well and truly represented.

Vance R. Koven studied music at Queens College and New England Conservatory, and law at Harvard. A composer and practicing attorney, he was for many years the chairman of Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble.

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