Friday’s rapt crowd at Rockport shared an intensely intimate evening with violinist Stefan Jackiw, clarinetist Yoonah Kim, and pianist Max Levinson, piano, as they seemingly impersonated the ménage à trois of Clara Schumann, Robert Schumann, and Johannes Brahms, blending two against three to FAF (free and happy) reincarnation. In five intimate and familiar works spanning 1853 to 1894, the affect grew from salonishness to absolutely immortal artistic utterance; Levinson massively impressed as a stand in for the beery Brahms, while Kim and Jackiw fluidly bent genders and roles as Clara and Robert.
Clara Wieck Schumann’s Three Romances for Violin and Piano benefited from the elegant and eloquent virtuosity of Jackiw and Levinson. Polished and masterfully hand-in-glove, they delivered the pleading gentility of these parlor without overwhelming the simplicity and charm. Jackiw’s sweetly singing natural artistry (already fully developed in his teens) and exquisite tones, matched handsomely with his frequent collaborator. Levinson would engage with his two partners and three composers at the highest levels of commitment and sonority over the course of a very satisfying evening. The third romance’s wonderfully liquid arpeggios from the piano and fierce expressivity from the violin lived up to the designation Rasch und mit Feuer (Quick and with fire).
Brahms’s valedictory second Sonata for Clarinet and Piano didn’t entirely make the kind of effect one expects, striking me (and a couple of colleagues) as unbalanced at times. One had the sense of Max-as-Brahms driving a bit too forwardly. Of course we took great pleasure in clarinetist Yoonah Kim’s silvery delicacy, evenness of timbre, and communicative wistfulness, but at certain key moments she lacked the heft to meet Max halfway. And in time she may deepen her interest in the spaces between the notes. Nevertheless, their traversal of Brahms’s depictions of life’s torments seen through subsequent consolation came across as a deliciously tormented elegy. The theme and variations third movement, paying particular tribute to the dedicatee Richard Muhlfeld’s virtuosity with lightness, lilt, geniality and lively instrumental interplay, got the performance it deserved. Brahms crammed a lot into the two minute-long fifth and final variation. Kelly Dean Hansen calls the balls and strikes:
After a sudden crescendo and a rising triplet arpeggio in the clarinet over a dissonant “diminished seventh” chord, the piano plays a rapid, virtually unmeasured sweeping arpeggio up the piano, landing on the same chord. While the piano is holding this, the clarinet repeats its triplet arpeggio an octave higher, then the piano repeats its rapid sweeping arpeggio an octave lower. The dissonant chord is held over into the next bar in anticipation of the joyous, exuberant final peroration.
7:11 [m. 136]–The piano breaks into a new, jovial version of the main melody, stripping it of its languid dotted rhythms. After two beats, the clarinet briefly imitates the right hand in canon, then recedes. Breaking away, the piano gradually moves to three-note descents and some syncopation before erupting into a full cross-rhythm, leaping up the keyboard with five groups of three that are reminiscent of the abrupt transition in Variation 5 at 6:03 [m. 91].
7:20 [m. 143]–The remainder of the coda is given to the distinctive closing gesture, which reaches a sort of jovial apotheosis. The clarinet, which has briefly been in the background, erupts into two statements of the gesture, the second two octaves below the first. The piano breaks into an excited accompaniment with bass octaves on the beat, the right hand following with octaves and chords off the beat. After the two statements of the closing gesture, the clarinet plays two rapid arpeggios over another “diminished seventh” chord, then a more slowly rising, leaping line that is derived from the closing gesture. Here, the excited piano accompaniment breaks for a beat, then resumes, the left hand on broken octaves, the right on full chords. After pausing briefly, the piano and clarinet play three last chords, the latter leaping to a final low E-flat.
Thereafter Brahms’s chamber music muse departed from him.
Robert Schumann’s Fantasiestücke for Clarinet and Piano found the pair in perfect accord jousting good-humoredly through the contrasts and mood swings. It began with dreamy tenderness, the shapely dynamics and agreed-upon rubatos engrossing us. Then a soiree atmosphere passed from playfulness to almost uncontrollable passion. Fast and faster they charged, missing nary a switchback, to the-all-or-nothing close.
The gods recognized the loftiness of the concert’s apotheosis by intensifying the pea-soup background into a deep Max Parrish blue as Max Levinson and Jackiw raised the artistic ante through the roof in a most satisfyingly wistful and intensely argued rendition of Brahms’s Violin Sonata No. 1. Having recorded and lived with this work, the sonata partners rose from the solid ground of focused hard work to share a remarkable vision, beginning with golden nostalgia and progressing gently towards acceptance. Levinson began the Adagio second movement with tragic solemnity setting up Jackiw’s cry from the heart. Restless anger briefly intrudes before succumbing to an exquisitely explosive passion and afterglow. The third movement’s recycling of the composer’s earlier “Regenlied” invited Jackiw to color like Fisher-Dieskau [HERE]. My notes refer to Jackiw’s dipping his bow in a vernal pool with the tiniest of ripples…a cathedral of tone…godly restraint…chorale-like doublestops…Jackiw knew when to eschew the star’s throbbing tone for something simpler…Levinson a true Brahmsian…the duos irresistible arguments with fate won us a half-hour’s complete reprieve from worldly care.
The full house noisily demanded an encore. The three artists, together for the fist time in this concert, complied with a languidly evanescent account of the Andante grazioso from Brahms’s Piano Trio No. 3 in Kim’s transcription substituting her clarinet for the expected cello.
Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer