Mourning, nostalgia, and regret permeated a kaleidoscope of works by Schubert and Brahms at the Boston Chamber Music Society’s Sanders Theater concert on Sunday, beginning with Schubert’s setting of Ludwig Rellstab’s “Auf dem Strom” (On the River) for tenor, horn, and piano. Composed specifically for performance at the first and only public concert devoted entirely to Schubert’s own works, it took place on March 26th, 1828, the first anniversary of Beethoven’s death. Although the two composers apparently never met, they had skirted one another within the restricted geographical limits of Vienna’s musical world, and Schubert was a torchbearer at Beethoven’s funeral. In choosing the date for his concert, the younger composer paid homage to the revered master and at the same time staked his own claim as his successor. In fact, the second and fourth stanzas of “Auf dem Strom” quote the theme from the Funeral March of Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony, itself composed (according to the title page of the first edition) “to celebrate the memory of a great man.” The poem recounts the author’s leave taking from an unattainable beloved, but as Graham Johnson has written, Schubert found further messages in Rellstab’s text: it can also be read in Beethoven’s voice, singing farewell as he sails away from life’s shore and perhaps also from the “ferne Geliebte” (Distant Beloved) of his own song cycle. Charles Blandy sang with lyric sweetness coupled with pure tone and rhythmic grace. Watery imagery was supplied by pianist Gilles Vonsattel’s fleetly delivered accompaniment, while Jason Snider’s gently expressive horn sounded a continuous narrative of longing and nostalgia.
The memory of raindrops awakens dreams of childhood in two songs to texts by Klaus Groth from Brahms’s Lieder und Gesänge (Songs), Op. 59. In the first, “Regenlied” (Rain Song), the slow “plop” of raindrops is evoked briefly in the piano introduction, then in a repeated-note figure in the voice part, while the piano continues with arpeggios that accelerate to triplets in the central section before returning to raindrop chords. In the slower, softer conclusion, the voice soars eerily into its high range as it evokes nostalgia for the summer rain. The following song,“Nachklang” (Echo), sets a curtailed and somewhat faster version of the previous melody to two short stanzas that turn the raindrops into tears of regret. Blandy and Vonsattel inhabited these two songs with exquisite timing and coordinated timbre, and a lyricism all the more effective for its emotional restraint.
Pianist Vonsattel was joined by violinist Harumi Rhodes for the Brahms Sonata in G major, Op. 78. Despite the Vivace tempo marking, the mood of the opening is restrained: sustained low chords in the piano, a brief hint of the “Regenlied” in the violin, with both parts marked mezza voce. Unfortunately, whether due to an acoustical fluke at Sanders or to excess caution, the violin was almost inaudible until rapid passage work and a substantial crescendo brought it into focus. Once launched, Rhodes brought adroit sensitivity and rhythmic panache to her playing, partnering with Vonsattel through Brahms’s multiple takes on the ambiguities of 6/4 time. The elegiac Adagio in an E-flat major tinged with minor brought a darker mood, shifting in its faster and tonally contrasting middle section to insistent dotted rhythms. The return to E-flat was accompanied by further harmonic exploration, only to fade away in an ethereal haze of chords in the piano and double stops in the violin’s lowest register. In the Finale, Allegro molto moderato, the “Regen” theme came into its own once more as the violin started off with a frank statement of almost the entire first line of the song and then spun out a counter-melody to it while the piano reiterated the repeated-note motto in the bass.
Brahms’s Trio in E-flat major for Horn, Violin, and Piano, Op. 40 concluded the program. Perhaps reflecting his own championship of Baroque and earlier music, the composer specified the older “natural” horn without valves, capable of playing the overtone series of a single fundamental along with a few additional notes made available by “stopping” the bell with the hand. Schubert’s horn was of course also a natural one, the instrument carrying with it a certain romantic longing for the countryside, for stage coach outings and serenades, and for posts delivered from afar. Brahms’s writing in the Trio, even when played on a modern horn as it was on Sunday, seems to echo a similar nostalgia. Instead of an Allegro, the first movement is a gentle Andante, opening with a distant horn call that is anticipated by the violin before being taken up by the horn itself. This opening theme develops tentatively out of a dominant 7th chord and continues for nearly 30 measures before landing on a tonic chord. Except for the recurrent horn call, much of the thematic content, especially in the rondo episodes, is given to the violin and piano, the horn providing harmonic support and punctuating motives rather than sustained melodic activity. In the Scherzo, the piano led off with driving staccato octaves, setting the rollicking tempo and boisterous attitude of a rustic dance. The much slower Trio, in the “soft” key of A-flat minor, brought the violin and horn to the fore in a smoothly legato duet. The sorrowful Adagio mesto may reflect the recent death of Brahms’s mother. Its dense and varied textures were beautifully coordinated by the ensemble. It would be hard to find a greater contrast than the Allegro con brio of the Finale, a bravura tour de force in which all three players excelled.