The benign melancholy of Brahms

A fine evening of Brahms by the Seattle Chamber Music Society
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Anton Nel. (Harriet Burger)

A fine evening of Brahms by the Seattle Chamber Music Society

The French author Francoise Sagan some decades ago wrote a novel entitled Aimez-vous Brahms? To judge from the capacity audience's reaction to the Seattle Chamber Music Society'ꀙs Brahms evening last Saturday at Benaroya'ꀙs recital hall, the answer was a resounding 'ꀜYes.'ꀝ

There was every reason for satisfaction, as the program was generous in quantity and rich in quality. Standards of performance by Stefan Jackiw (violin) Bion Tsang (Cello) and Anton Nel (Piano) were excellent throughout the evening. In the first half we had two mature instrumental sonatas — for Violin and Piano in D minor Opus 108, and for Cello and Piano in F Opus 99. These were followed after the interval by Brahms'ꀙ single movement contribution to the 'ꀜFAE'ꀝ violin sonata promoted by Schumann as a tribute to the great violinist Joachim, and the 'ꀜFour Pieces for Piano'ꀝ Opus 119 played by Nel on his own. The concert ended with Tsang'ꀙs reworking for cello and piano of Joachim'ꀙs arrangements of four Hungarian Dances.

All three performers are regular visitors to the Seattle Chamber Music Society'ꀙs festivals and have no need to establish their credentials as consummate artists and chamber players. Tsang and Nel, who are colleagues on the Music Faculty of Texas University, have just completed a recording of the Brahms sonatas and Tsang'ꀙs Hungarian Dance arrangements, so it is no surprise that their contributions to the evening came across with a particularly strong sense of shared vision and spontaneous response to the music. Especially memorable in Stefan Jackiw'ꀙs playing was the richness of tone and simplicity of phrasing in the slow movement of the D minor Sonata, and his fierce, taut, performance of Brahms'ꀙ Scherzo movement for the Joachim piece.

The piano parts in Brahms'ꀙ chamber music are notoriously taxing. His dense and muscular piano writing can cause balance problems in the sonatas, and these were occasionally noticeable in these performances. Nevertheless, Anton Nel was on stage throughout the long evening and never put a finger out of place so far as I could hear. He responded with complete conviction to the varying moods of the music. His playing of the Opus 119 pieces— those miraculously deep and memorable 'ꀜminiatures'ꀝ — gave particular pleasure.

Hearing so much Brahms chamber music on one evening prompted thought about its appeal to modern audiences. The program note included a salutary warning against stereotyping all his music as 'ꀜautumnal.'ꀝ As a schoolboy preparing for a musicology exam, I was required to write a paper on the proposition 'ꀜBrahms never exults.'ꀝ That is manifestly wrong: Think of the last movement of the second symphony, or the trio to the Scherzo of the piano quintet. There is an attractive sense of benign melancholy in much of his later music but it is equally characterised by energy, humor, and strong affirmation. It was all this, as well as the quality of performance, that generated such enthusiasm on Saturday.


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