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Brahms’s Famous Three Against Two


Katherine Dain (file photo)

A Far Cry’s “Unrequited,” at Jordan Hall on Friday night, paid tribute to the Brahms-Clara Schumann relationship, a bond as fraught as it was loving. Crier-violinist Megumi Lewis introduced the show which began as guest soprano Katharine Dain sang three of Clara’s Lieder to accompaniments which Crier Rafael Popper-Keizer derived. Liebst du um Schönheit comes directly from the heart. It conveys the singer’s concern that she should be loved for herself, not for her appearance or her riches. Arpeggios and straightforward harmonies support the vocal line in the first three verses. When the text encourages love for its own sake, Clara marked the passage Bewegter (emotional)in the original piano version, and she emphasized the poignancy of the passage with a chromatic descent and ascent in the left hand and a directive to ritard. The Criers caressed these moments fully and with a rich, confident voice, Dain stunned us with Clara’s message to her beloved (in this case Robert Schumann). The two remaining songs of this group, Liebeszauber and Beim Abschied, bring Schubert to mind with their celebration of nature and the extent to which rhythmical variety heeds the moods of the text.

Kaija Saariaho writes of her Changing Light, “I follow the idea of a dialogue, suggested by the text I have chosen. The intimate nature and fragile sound world of the duo mirror the fragility of our uncertain existence.” The composer stays true to her idea of a dialogue. In those lines of poetry that separate in two she breaks the vocal line with a rest; the note following the rest is the same as that preceding but with slightly altered rhythm. Melodic motion is reserved for those poetry lines that are literary and dramatic. Violinist Miki Cloud supported the vocal line while making the most of the freedom that Saariaho’s directives and special effects allowed. Dain, in turn, availed herself of every note and moment for its maximal emotional impact. The effect mesmerized us.

Saariaho wrote Terra Memoria in 2006 and dedicated it to the recently departed. It “treats music as we treat our own memories. Some aspects go through distinctive transformations whereas others remain unchanged.” The String Orchestra version, which dates from 2009, opens in an utterly hushed manner, with violins, viola and cellos playing simple motifs. The cello line slowly descends to the cello’s lowest note and then fades out. The viola enters with a two note ostinato and then introduces a motif composed of descending and ascending half notes separated by a fifth. By the time the silence arrived at m. 33, we had heard only pp, befitting the composer’s misterioso, espressivo, dolce designations. The first dramatic moment occurs shortly after this silence with sfz in the first violins and the instructions “Agitato, energico.” But the calm returns until all instruments fall silent at m. 141. An explosion of energy ensues, with cascades of sound leading to note stacks of fifths and sevenths marked ffff, Con violence, impetuoso. The intensity and fury continue through the middle section until the opening is repeated, calmly and quietly. Saariho uses special effects such as glissandi, harmonic trills and scraped bowing throughout. Yet, the conservative structure (ABA) and recognizable melodic elements render the piece accessible, emotional, and communicative. The Criers made the most of the expressive moments, the violas bringing out their opening melody with focus and intensity, while the rich, resonant plucks of the contrabass underpinned it all. Criers sounded as one in the descending glissandos. All evaporated into nothingness in the whispering harmonic trills that preceded the structurally important silences. A thrilling traversal.

Kathryn Allwine’s Program noted that the Brahms’s String Sextet no. 2 fits the “Unrequited” model in several ways. The pitches of the climactic theme spell out the name Agathe, a lost love of Brahms. Equally important, Clara’s musical input helped bring the Sextet project to fruition. The first movement opens with a continuous half step obstinato in the first viola. This alerts the listener to a current of instability that exists throughout even as Brahms presents some of his warmest and most lyrical material. The second movement starts with a taciturn four measure theme that alternates with short lyrical passages. This furtiveness is relieved by the boisterous middle section, a Trio marked Presto giocoso. The Poco Adagio is a set of variations on a freely meandering theme that evokes longing. The finale, Poco Allegro, is upbeat and vivacious. The Criers, using Sarah Darling’s enlargement for string orchestra, expanded on Brahms multiple moods dramatically. In keeping with its democratic structure, the ensemble distributed solos among several members of each section. Where necessary to keep the texture light the performance of a prolonged statement would alternate between small groups of an instrumental section. Especially since the Sextet version works to perfection, one can question whether all the musical elements came off successfully. The constant motion of the players onstage may have indicated engagement, but it also proved distracting. Minor flaws aside, the Sextet fit the evening’s conceptual framework to perfection.

Between movements two and three of the Brahms String Sextet no. 2, Dain added two more songs of Clara Schumann, Sie liebten sich beide and Oh Weh Des Scheidens, Das Er Tat, again in arrangements by Popper-Keiser. Here lies a deeper core of pain. Hostility, misunderstanding, and death interfere with the ultimate fulfillment of a loving relationship. Dain’s heartfelt turns of phrases and soaring vocal lines skillfully communicated the anguish. After the Sextet, Katharine encored with Stille Tränen, by Robert Schumann. True to form, AFC’s guest artist contributed mightily.

This writer heard the concert via A Far Cry’s high-definition livestream. As the stream ended, the words “An Immersive Music Project” flashed on the screen. AFC’s evenings, which bring together multiple artistic threads to evoke our shared humanity, are always absorbing, compelling, and indeed immersive.

Retired medical biology researcher Dinah Bodkin is a serious amateur pianist and mother of Groupmuse founder Sam Bodkin.

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