in: Reviews

September 24, 2012

Brahms Sonatas Gain Freshness on Period Piano

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Arriving late at Slosberg Music Center, Brandeis University, Sunday evening, I was warned by a member of staff to hurry – “It’s like a rock concert in there!” I saw what he meant. The hall was packed as Daniel Stepner and Robert Levin prepared to dive into all three Brahms violin-piano sonatas. The concert opened the new Brandeis concert season with a bang.

The 300-seat auditorium and the emotional connection between audience and performers lent a degree of intimacy to the sensual sonatas that are so seldom grouped at one event. Further, it was a rare opportunity to hear these two popular educator-performers making music together onstage.

Close personal friends of long standing, Stepner teaches violin at Brandeis, Levin is on the Harvard faculty, and they have co-taught a class in chamber music and performance and analysis at Harvard for the past 20 years. By all evidence, much of the audience had been through this class.

The third star on stage was Levin’s personal Streicher piano, trucked in for the event. The piano, dated 1869, is identical to the instrument on which Brahms composed for the last 24 years of his life.  The Streicher sound blended perfectly with Stepner’s violin and set this musical experience apart from the various modern CD recordings on later, glassier, pianos.

Levin took 10 minutes after the intermission to conduct a loving mini-lecture on piano history, pacing the stage and demonstrating the Streicher’s clarity and power with full keyboard arpeggios and a few bars of Bach’s Two-Part Inventions. Levin then provided a bonus interlude of three of the Mendelssohn Songs Without Words, a lovely showcase for the Streicher’s velvety tones. His technique coaxed fresh musical properties from the instrument, subtler yet more penetrating than modern pianos with their cast-iron plates and overstrung bass strings.

But the main attraction of the evening was the Brahms sensibility in the sonata form. Although not consciously composed as a set, the violin-piano sonatas are well matched in tone and structure. Piano and violin trade places with theme and accompaniment, intertwining their roles like a DNA double helix. Themes are so musical as to stay in one’s memory for days.

Stepner’s program notes vividly conveyed his love affair with Brahms.  Brahms’s emotional power, he wrote, “doesn’t grab me by the lapels; rather, it seduces me and doesn’t allow me to avert my ears …” The climactic moments, he added, “can leave me devastated.” This emotional investment was obvious yesterday evening, especially in No. 1 op. 78 in G Major, which opened with a vivace theme shifting from Stepner to Levin and back. In the second movement, the Adagio, Levin was notably effective in bringing out a sense of yearning, tenderness, and reflection. At times, his sustained pedaling made the Streicher weep. This is the movement written in tribute to Clara Schumann’s son, Felix, who was dying tragically at the age of 24.  The third movement, Allegro molto moderato, saw Stepner warming to his theme, leaning into the plaintive music, and effortlessly executing Brahms’s virtuoso demands.

Also memorable were the final two movements of No. 3 op. 108 in D Minor, a sprightly Presto theme again exchanged between the two players with nothing but an occasional discreet nod to keep them in sync. In this reading, the third movement flowed straight into the fourth, Presto agitato, with its intricate, tricky rhythms and its bursting finale.

Stepner and Levin were enjoying themselves unashamedly, a vibe picked up by the audience. Stepner described the first sonata as ending with “volcanic violence”; the final chords brought the public to its feet.

An additional treat came from their choice of encore, the Scherzo from the F-A-E Sonata, a collaborative work with movements by Brahms, Robert Schumann, and Schumann pupil Albert Dietrich. The sonata was presented to their friend and violinist Joseph Joachim, who at the first private performance was asked to identify the authorship of each movement. He easily named each one. Stepner and Levin plunged into the piece with gusto and ended with a delightful climax.

It was the joy of the performances, often lacking in formal concert settings, that made this concert such a pleasure.

Michael Johnson is a former Moscow correspondent who writes on music for the International Herald Tribune, Clavier Companion and other publications. He divides his time between Bordeaux and Brookline.

4 Comments

  1. He’s dead right: The performances were engaged and engaging, the performers evidently
    enjoying themselves. The piano, with its balanced sound over its compass, matched
    perfectly with the violin. Levin’s exposition after the break was brief and valuable.
    Would that we could hear this kind of sonority. Bravi Stepner, Levin!

    Comment by Martin Cohn — September 24, 2012 at 7:48 pm

  2. I wasn’t there, but this beautifully written review with its details about the piano, about Stepner and Levin, about the writer’s and the audience response made me think how often music heard live, meaning both seen and heard, has brought me to tears for sheer joy. This review comes pretty close to doing that. I can hear the writer’s heart beat here. Kudos.

    Comment by Mary L. Tabor — September 25, 2012 at 9:32 am

  3. uh, SAE Sonata? If memory serves (and it does), that should be F.A.E. Sonata. (Frei aber Einsam- Free but Lonely.) Perhaps S.A.E. means “Spell an Error”……

    Comment by anon 1 — September 25, 2012 at 8:27 pm

  4. Anon 1 is certainly right and should know his Brahms. Duly noted and corrected.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — September 25, 2012 at 10:36 pm

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