IN: Reviews

Brilliant Duo, Dubious Piano


Meng-Jung Aaron Chiang photo
Ya-Fei Chuang (Meng-Jung Aaron Chiang file photo)

A over-capacity audience flocked to the Hammond Performing Arts’ concert in Old South Church Sunday to hear two outstanding artists: Jan Müller-Szeraws, cello; and Ya-Fei Chuang, piano.

They opened with Brahms’ cello and piano sonata in E minor, Opus 38. The lyrical Allegro non Troppo set the tone for the concert. A beautiful melody passes between the cello and piano, each here accompanying the other with great sensitivity. Where they double, the instruments seemed to be almost as one, playing with extraordinary pianissimos and dynamic range. Chuang knows how to play so the piano whispers, with fluidity. Her expressive touch blended perfectly with Müller-Szeraws. The Allegretto quasi Menuetto was even more expressive and moving. In the last movement the two instruments become more aggressive. Müller-Szeraws and Chuang gave it all they had, but from where I sat the piano was at a disadvantage. The roar one expected from Brahms’s virtuosic pianism was not there. Chuang was asking for it, but the instrument could not deliver.

One wonders about the cello-piano balance when Brahms played the piece. This reviewer complains often that the cello becomes inaudible in the fury of the pianist’s performance. In my experience players do not want this imbalance, and reject it in a recording. It is the engineer’s job to make sure cello and piano are equal partners, regardless of what the audience hears. But what did Brahms expect? I went to Wikipedia to see when the E minor was composed, the early 1860s. I gave a donation. Up popped a quote from Brahms that was well worth it:

The sonata is actually entitled Sonate für Klavier und Violoncello and the piano “should be a partner—often a leading, often a watchful and considerate partner—but it should under no circumstances assume a purely accompanying role.”

This is followed by a comment from the first performance of the E minor by Brahms and the cellist he dedicated the piece to, an inspired amateur named Josef Gänsbacher.

In the course of a private performance for an audience of friends, Brahms played so loudly that the worthy Gänsbacher complained that he could not hear his cello at all. “Lucky for you, too,” growled Brahms, and let the piano rage on.

 One of the joys of Chuang is that her power never got out of control and never obscured what is important in the music.

A program note thanked M. Steinert for a Steinway, but during intermission I found the piano was a small, rather ancient Mason-Hamlin. The brilliance we expect to hear in the upper registers of a concert grand simply was not there. With my eyes closed the cello was close, direct, and brilliant in timbre. The piano, although it could be loud, was distant. There was nothing Chuang could do.

The Barber sonata for cello and piano, opus 6, which ended the first half of the program, was a great partner to the Brahms. The first and third movements are Brahmsian, full of melodies passing between the two instruments, interspersed with sections of strong complex harmonies. The middle movement was light and jazzy. The lack of piano brilliance was not particularly bothersome.

The distant, muffled sound of the piano was troubled more in the closer, Brahms’ Sonata in F major, Opus 99. It opens with a grand flourish from the piano, to which the cello adds a brilliant statement of the opening theme. The effect is that of a painting of an enormous battle where the hero, illuminated by hidden spotlight, stands in the center. In this performance the hero stood out but the battle was dulled by years of darkened varnish.

That said, the two performers gave a fabulous rendition: the three Allegro movements were more than adequately passionate and the Adagio was gorgeous. A long standing ovation quickly followed.

David Griesinger is a Harvard-trained physicist who is eminent in the field of sound and music. His website is here.

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