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Symphonic Brahms in Gilded Cage


Esther Ning Yau (file photo)

In the first in a series of “Music at the Mansion Parlor Performances” at the Ayers Mansion on Commonwealth Avenue, after introductory cheese and wine, a small (but capacity) audience heard all three Brahms sonatas for piano and violin. Early Tuesday, pianist Esther Ning Yau and violinist Angelo Xiang Yu delivered symphonic renderings of works they each know like old friends.

Before launching into the G Major, Xiang Yu urged the audience to retreat. It didn’t take long to learn why. After only a few bars —beautiful, underpinning chords from Ning Yau, then the first seven notes from Xiang Yu—we knew we were in for something special. Tender lyricism worked its way, via Brahms’s marvelous hemiolas and cross rhythms, to high drama and drive, en route to an even more lyricism. And while Ning Yau stayed grounded and centered, Xiang Yu needed rows of space to dance through his material. It was rather thrilling to watch him perform. Better yet to hear him, to hear them, bring Brahms to life.

I once heard Ning Yau coach a shy pianist on the G Major Sonata, finding ways to get him to play out and make a musical line. When her gestures and urgings were not enough, she played the violin part at the top of the register. When that wasn’t enough, she made him sing the violin part while he was playing the piano part. She was driving him a little nuts, it was clear, but helping him out of his shell. Her technique worked.Ensemble work could hardly have been better throughout the mini-Brahms marathon; only in one instance did they seem on different pages, but it wasn’t while they were playing. They didn’t seem to agree on just who it was Brahms was in love with when he wrote his A Major Sonata. Was it Clara Schumann or that other woman? And the audience was clued in to their conception of the works in advance, when Xiang Yu pointed to the symphonic qualities of the outer two sonatas, and the more intimate qualities of the A Major Sonata sandwiched between.

This was not shy music making, and a tiny room could hardly deter two such determined musicians. They provided all the detail and nuance one could want, with silence given its due accord, but the huge arcs of melody, harmony, and drama unfolding pretty much seamlessly in real time made for something unforgettable.

Angelo Xian Yu in file photo

Winner of the Yehudi Menuhin International Violin Competition and member of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, Xiang Yu is an extraordinary violinist. Ning Yau, a superb pianist and partner, brought her own special qualities. She equaled Xiang Yu in all respects save one. Yu has a gorgeous instrument (and tone). Ning Yau, on this night, had a stump of a piano to work with, in a not-so-acoustically-friendly room (in a beautiful building). But about those special qualities . . . , if anyone can make a concert instrument of an unworthy piano, leave it to the unflappable Ning Yau; her musical persona draws upon no small amount of grace, wit, charm, warmth, intellectual rigor, and anger (held in check). It took only a little time for our ears to adjust to that piano.

The slow movement of the G Major was poignant with appropriate restraint. And the artists churned through the perpetuo moto-like “rain drop” finale that just doesn’t want to end, in lovely fashion.

The lovely and tender A Major had symphonic drama as well.

With the D Minor Sonata, which Xiang Yu said is the most popular of the three (is it?), things got darker, and less tender. Tour-de-forceful, you might say. The last movement in particular seemed downright angry, and it worked, both players at times almost bludgeoning their instruments. A violent world apart from the end of the first sonata of the evening. And one that brought us breathtakingly through this wonderful mini-world of Brahms.

Jim McDonald has masters degrees in arts administration and piano performance from the University of Iowa, where he studied with John Simms. He has presented chamber music for 25 years.

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