On the longest day of the year, Rockport Chamber Music Festival recognized the virtue of brevity with a somewhat short but rewarding selection of three beloved works of Brahms. (The fact that the Shalin Liu Performance Center presentation of a Classical Cabaret later on the same evening perhaps accounted for the brevity.) The featured artists mixed accomplished instrumentalists, who had performed at Rockport before with a singer in the early part of an international career who grew up on the south shore making her debut at the festival. Barry Shiffman wore two hats, as the festival’s Artistic Director, introducing the concert at unnecessary length (aside from the important recognition of the generosity of sponsors), and as violist.
At the outset—Brahms’s Two Songs for Alto, with Viola and Piano, Op. 91—mezzo-soprano Samantha Hankey formed an elegant chamber ensemble with pianist Anton Nel and violist Barry Shiffman, capably demonstrating the composer’s creativity in writing for this uncommon combination. Hankey, a native of Marshfield, is an award-winning (most recently of the 2018 Glyndebourne Opera Cup) graduate of Walnut Hill School for the Arts and The Juilliard School. She wields a sizable voice, rich and warm in tone, whose registers connect from top to bottom virtually seamlessly. Her first phrases in Gestillte Sehnsucht (Stilled Longing) strikingly revealed her plush, contralto-like lower range. The beautiful colors of the golden hour over Sandy Bay and the wooded opposite shore revealed by the huge windows behind the stage, wonderfully fit the song’s text here: “Bathed in a golden evening glow/How solemnly the forests stand!” Nel and Shiffman enhanced the attractive imagery with sweet tone and sensitive collaboration between vocal phrases as well as attentively framing Hankey’s singing. The three artists appropriately increased the dynamic and energy level in the central stanza as the poet (Friedrich Rückert) speaks of reawakening desires, while in the outer stanzas the performers skillfully depicted the eponymous stilled rather than extinguished longing. The second song, Geistliches Wiegenlied (Sacred Lullaby), sets a Spanish text in German translation and uses the familiar tune of a 14th-century German carol “Lieber Joseph, Joseph Mein” as Mary attempts to quiet the blustering wind and swaying treetops so that her baby can sleep. While the three musicians chose an appropriately intermediate tempo for another poetic dichotomy—lulling a baby to sleep but also painting the counteracting forces of nature—all four of the poem’s stanzas end with “My child is sleeping,” a motif which was not as successful due to the mostly full-voiced delivery by Hankey. The one time she made that phrase tenderly intimate only whetted my desire for her to do it every time. In both songs, too, she let slip an Americanized vowel from time to time. However, she is clearly well-suited to these lieder, vocally and temperamentally, and her future performances of them will no doubt be still more satisfying as her artistry continues to mature.
Anton Nel returned with violinist Chee-Yun, who is from Seoul, for Brahms’s Sonata No. 3 for Violin and Piano, in D Minor, Op. 108. As the helpful book noted, the sonata’s first movement is fraught with repressed tension, though this performance also had a second kind of repression likely not envisioned by the composer. Chee-Yun played a Rugeri violin from 1669, producing a sweet but rather smaller tone than is standard in the Romantic literature, while Nel collaborated on a modern, nine-foot Steinway concert grand. These seasoned artists paid careful attention to balance, nearly always achieving it, but in doing so made compromises in the piano part, principally through over-frequent use of the una corda (soft) pedal, muting the piano’s overtones at least as much as softening the dynamic, and the quite sparing use of the sustaining pedal (more Classical in style than Romantic) in the keyboard’s stormier chordal and octave sections. The players’ beguiling range of moods and colors, however, soon commandeered my attention, particularly their carefully aligned but altogether organic rubatos. The long coda, with its moaning motif swapped between the two instruments as well as major-minor interplay, was profoundly moving. The slow movement and scherzo, being of smaller scale, required much less instrumental manipulation to attain balance. The Adagio is surely one of Brahms’s most expansively Romantic movements, inspiring Chee-Yun and Nel to some fervently passionate playing as well as some tenderly introspective moments. The scherzo, marked Un poco presto e con sentimento, gives its opening theme to the piano, with the violin accompanying; Nel’s damply staccato octaves and darting sotto voce runs evoked an elfin, almost mischievous character, with Chee-Yun following suit when her turn came. When the violin plays the main theme just before the conclusion, the keyboard part develops into a long sequence of rapid passagework with near-continuous leapfrogging of the hands over and under one another, which Nel tossed off with no apparent effort before the slyly disappearing final cadence. The Presto agitato finale is indeed the most agitated movement of all, and as before, the piano had to be reined in more than I find ideal, though here too, the performers’ playing prevailed over lesser considerations, bespeaking a well-calibrated musical approach as well as reflection on what they wanted to say with their distinctive interpretation. Here too the coda was especially memorable for its brief major-mode tantalizing and momentary relaxation, only to hurl us into the devastating, unrelieved fortissimo D minor ending.
Brahms’s much-lionized Trio in E-flat Major, Op. 40 for violin, piano and horn, rounded off the concert, bringing back Chee-Yun and Anton Nel while adding hornist William Vermeulen, another highly regarded, experienced artist. The composer maintained his preference for the natural (valveless) horn over the evolving modern valved versions. However, the horn trio today is almost always heard with the modern horn, and given sensitive collaborative musicians, as here, balance need not ever be a problem. Since sunset had occurred during intermission, the audience again had the extra bonus of Rockport’s lovely tree-lined shore and harbor forming the backdrop to Brahms’s alluringly rustic music. All three instruments employed healthy dynamic ranges in the first movement and throughout; if any manipulation was again needed to attain balance, with three instruments it was imperceptible to this listener. The second movement scherzo was less joking than robustly playful though the players’ unexpected emotional contrast in the poignant middle section would surely have fulfilled Brahms’s intentions. This section and the whole of the third movement, marked Adagio mesto (mournful adagio), likely reflected the composer’s mourning for his recently (1865) deceased mother, whom he had loved deeply. Nel’s rich, deep piano sonorities set the elegiac tone well, and the repeated exchange of the theme between violin and horn, coupled with the musicians’ ever-expressive playing, evoked a scene of friends or relatives sharing memories of a departed loved one. Chee-Yun and Vermeulen also made commendably artistic use of tonal contrasts: the former alternating standard vibrato with no vibrato, the latter employing sometimes full sound, sometimes muted. Brahms returns to the sunny countryside in the high-spirited final movement and incorporates a folk melody his mother had taught him, “Dort in den Weiden steht ein Haus” (There in the willows stands a house) which had been foreshadowed at the end of the Adagio. Though characteristically shunning overt display, the finale does offer the players the trio’s best showcase for virtuosity, and these artists made use of the opportunity to delineate the transition from deep mourning to exuberance, culminating in a powerful ending charged with revitalization.
Geoffrey Wieting holds Bachelor’s degrees in organ and Latin from Oberlin College and a Master’s degree in collaborative piano from New England Conservatory. He is a freelance organist, collaborative pianist and vocal coach. He sings with the Back Bay Chorale and serves on the Board of Directors of the Old West Organ Society.