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Brahms Effaces Lesser Mortals

by

Clara Schumann

The major work the Boston Chamber Music Society offered Sunday at Sanders, the Piano Quartet in A major, Op. 26, by Brahms, was delivered with such force that it threatened to obliterate the memory of what went before it. It is a strenuous work. Great pressure is laid on a handful of materials not especially remarkable on their own to create a work of great range and duration, taking the better part of an hour. The players on this occasion — Yura Lee, violin; Marcus Thompson, viola; Max Levinson, piano; and guest artist Gabriel Cabezas, cello — confronted the challenge like skilled athletes, whose effort drew attention to the difficulty of the task while as their technique and preparation made it seem effortless. Every fortissimo thundered, especially in the outer movements, but there was no lack of finesse when it was called for. In the adagio, Cabezas played with exceptional beauty: after one ascending line I lost track of the movement while I waited for the line to recur. If the final movement began to seem labored, that might be better attributed to the composer or, better, to the reviewer’s lack of stamina than to any fault of the performers.

One feels a little bad, then, for Clara Wieck Schumann, whose Piano Trio in G Minor, Op. 17 opened the program, in the hands of Lee, Cabezas and Levinson. Schumann and Brahms were famously close, but their composing lives were almost completely disjunct, Schumann’s final opus having been written in the year of Brahms’s first. (Schumann did continue writing intermittently for the rest of her life, but the remainder of her late output is transcriptions and cadenzas to other composers’ concertos). Her works have been enjoying their moment after decades of neglect: this performance of Op. 17 is the first time it has been done by the BCMS. Although like Brahms, Schumann’s language is romantic, and she has an attraction to imitative textures, this Trio is in a different world of mood and temperament, in addition to being some 15 years older. I find much of its attraction in moments of passage work and transition, rather than from any particular virtues of melody, harmonic complexity or rhetoric. If the forces are smaller than the Brahms, the scale is much smaller, but Levinson took and almost identical approach. This made for a handful of powerful moments at the expense of much else. Lee, by contrast, underpowered, with a sound too small for Sanders, and one often covered entirely by the piano. The interpretation made a good enough to make a case for the piece, but Clara’s trio deserved greater attention to its particular gifts.

Brahms in 1853

In its Boston premiere, John Harbison’s 2018 Sonata for Viola and Piano separated the two works of romanticism. Its six short movements bear intriguing titles: Resolution, Passage, Night Piece, Certainties, Uncertanties, Questions, and Answers. The style was identifiably Harbison: roughly tonal in its note to note language, but most understandable understand in terms of by structure, imitation, and repetition than by harmonic structure. The rationale for those titles wasn’t always clear, and some evaporated from memory immediately after they ended. But those that remained were vivid. Resolution has more to do with steely resolve than with either New Year’s or cadences, but it was really about angular argumentation which thrillingly devolved into slashing chaos, twice.  Night Piece engaged in an oblique and engaging dance with a hint of grotesque; the Questions posited open-ended lyrical lines, and Answers offered a colloquy of engaging imitation. A worthy addition to the rather spare repertoire for viola and piano, it unfolded with conversational intelligence from Marcus Thompson and Judith Gordon. Thompson clearly relished the chance to let the viola take a starring role, alarmingly shredding his bow in the first movement’s energetic entropy. The work and the composer (present for the occasion) were received warmly.

Brian Schuth graduated from Harvard with a Philosophy degree, so in lieu of a normal career he has been a clarinetist, theater director and software engineer. He currently resides in Boston after spending the last 15 years in Eastport, Maine.

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