Chamber Music Northwest review: Bonding with Brahms

Festival and composer make a happy musical marriage


Johannes Brahms had a reputation as a prickly and formidable character, and it’s true his closest relationships tended to be his most difficult. But if his music is any guide, he was as capable of amiability and affection as anyone. One of his tenderest and most blissful works is the late violin and piano sonata, op. 100.  All three of his violin and piano sonatas feature unusually equal partnership between the instruments, but in this work the two seem to embrace and even occasionally squabble like lovers. And yet in how many performances, even by musicians famous enough to know better, does the pianist tinkle out what should be a soaring melody while the violinist saws away at music that should be quietly supportive, more like a marriage on the rocks?

Nadja Salerno Sonnenberg and Anne Marie McDermott perform Brahms's Violin Sonata No. 2 in A Major, Op. 100. Photo by Tom Emerson

Nadja Salerno Sonnenberg and Anne Marie McDermott perform Brahms’s Violin Sonata No. 2 in A Major, Op. 100. Photo by Tom Emerson

Violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg and pianist Anne-Marie McDermott are both formidable and even famous musicians, but that didn’t keep them from bonding nearly to perfection in this work, which opened the Portland State University series of this summer’s Chamber Music Northwest festival and the first of two all-Brahms concerts, at Lincoln Performance Hall Tuesday evening. McDermott used her generous dynamic range to full effect, roundly but delicately supporting Salerno-Sonnenberg’s ineffably sweet tone one minute and unabashedly singing front and center the next, while Salerno-Sonnenberg proved just as adept at insinuating sly asides as at passionately pouring out the expected melodies. Maybe there was a bit too much piano when the full house soaked up Salerno-Sonnenberg’s pizzicato (plucked notes), but aside from a very few such moments, I was totally absorbed in an experience of aural love from the first note to the last. Conventional “accompaniment” would have been like a cold shower, replacing intimacy with distance.

Among highlights too many to list, two were especially moving. The middle movement is a mashup of the traditional slow and scherzo movements, and at the final reprise of the soulful slow material, the violin melody ascends into the heavens while the piano harmony turns such colors that to continue the relationship analogy would verge on pornography. The colors continue to bloom as the violin holds one pitch high on the E string at the very peak of the phrase. Here Salerno-Sonnenberg achieved an intensity that was utterly transporting, yet it wouldn’t have happened without McDermott’s sublimely melded support.

The final reprise of the genial theme of the finale was another such highlight. It follows a stormy section in which McDermott confidently held the piano in equal balance with the imploring violin above, despite having to tear through at least ten times as many notes. As if by magic, when the theme started up again, the warmth of a deep forgiveness seemed to suffuse the hall, as when Countess Rosina forgives Count Almaviva near the end of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, or the man in Arnold Schoenberg’s Transfigured Night forgives his unfaithful lover, but completely untainted by the latter work’s self-congratulatory overtones. At such moments, music does indeed seem the food of an all-encompassing love, with no danger of surfeit.

After all that passionate coupling, we were ready for some simple, clean fun, and we got it in the form of four selections from Brahms’ ever-popular piano duet Hungarian Dances, including the most famous one, number 5 in F# minor. McDermott again did the honors, on top this time while Yekwon Sunwoo bravely held up the secundo (bass) end. The fire and drama of her playing evoked a wild Hungarian world, even through the hybridized musical vocabulary that represented that region in Brahms’ mind and the minds of most of his audience as well. The crowd, which didn’t seem to fully appreciate the treasure they’d been given in the earlier sonata, roused themselves for a noisy ovation.

Finally we were treated to one of Brahms’ earliest large-scale chamber works, the op. 26 piano quartet, in the key of A major like the violin and piano sonata. From its gently teasing opening to its high-spirited conclusion, it radiates a similar feeling of amiability, though mixed up liberally with a young composer’s irresistible urge to show off. Not surprisingly, it comes in at well over twice the length of the sonata, without seeming to contain much more substance. Still, it’s way meatier than the fiery fluff of the Hungarian Dances. If the sonata is for lovers, the piano quartet is for Brahms lovers.

It was for Chamber Music Northwest lovers too. The work was performed by four long-time participating musicians – not only McDermott on piano, but Ida Kavafian on violin, Steven Tenenbom on viola, and Peter Wiley on cello. In recent years the group has started to perform regularly together under the name Opus One. Thus we got the added treat of hearing the work performed by musicians who have lots of experience playing with each other, and who presumably have rehearsed the work more than many ensembles that are typically thrown together in a festival context.

Opus One performs Brahms's Piano Quartet No. 2 in A Major, Op. 26 at Chamber Music Northwest. Photo by Tom Emerson.

Opus One performs Brahms’s Piano Quartet No. 2 in A Major, Op. 26 at Chamber Music Northwest. Photo by Tom Emerson.

It certainly sounded well prepared. In that teasing opening phrase, which comes back many a time in the first movement, a fast dancing gesture must come in just off the beat after a short pause. If the players aren’t all on the same wavelength, it’s going to be ragged. This group touched down together every time, yet without ever sounding like a mere machine. Also the balance between piano and strings was absolutely flawless throughout, even in the mysterious slow second movement in which the strings play with mutes most of the time. (Another similarity with the violin sonata is the rumbling piano arpeggiation in parts of this movement, which foreshadows the stormy sections of the sonata’s finale.)

The scherzo and finale were lively enough, but felt long. They could have used more flash and sparkle, with a bigger wow finish. Still, overall the work got a rich, solid performance, and the audience hollered its appreciation. With the same crew back on stage for the second installment, including Portland favorite mezzo soprano Angela Niederloh in two songs with piano and viola and Salerno-Sonnenberg energizing the cataclysmic F minor piano quintet, CMNW’s Brahms celebration should finish up with a bang tonight.

Jeff Winslow is a Portland composer and pianist, who continues to be inspired, when not intimidated, by the compositional mastery of Johannes Brahms. He once placed third in a Classical Revolution PDX Halloween costume contest as Brahms – with no costume!

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