Indeed, the “Brahms problem” never seems to go away. Over and over, we hear complaints that his music is “too romantic,” albeit not excitingly romantic like Chopin or his mentor Schumann. At the same time, he’s charged with being too intellectual and not sensuous enough.
One thing, however, is certain: Brahms’ oeuvre occupies a unique position in the history of Western music. Looking Janus-like both to the music of the past and towards the innovations of future generations, Brahms’ music has shaped our understanding of composers from the Renaissance and Baroque periods to the present-day.
Violinist and DCMF Artistic Director Barbara Govatos has curated a series that acknowledges the tensions between modernism and tradition. Each of the four concerts offers a master work by Brahms as well as works by Schubert, Mozart, Beethoven, Stravinsky and others.
The level of playing was extremely high. The Festival Quartet — Govatos, Che-Hung Chen, viola, Hirono Oka, violin — includes musicians of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Guest artists for the first weekend of concerts included pianists Marcantonio Barone, Julie Nishimura and Natalie Zhu.
Friday evening’s program opened with a performance of Jennifer Higdon’s Piano Trio, a nod to the Festival’s theme “Strings and Keys.” Like Scriabin, color and visual imagery figure prominently in her compositional process. This two-movement work attempts an aural depiction of the colors “Pale Yellow” and “Fiery Red.”
Govatos, pianist Natalie Zhu and cellist Clancy Newman delivered a performance that truly highlighted character of the movement titles: subtle and relaxed for the first, energetic and rhythmically decisive for the second. Perception is personal but if audience response was any indication, both musicians and composer succeeded in achieving the two vastly contrasting moods.
Violist Che-Hung Chen then joined Govatos and Newman in a performance of the Serenade in C major for String Trio by Hungarian composer Erno Dohnanyi. Dohnanyi became a devotee of Brahms while studying at the National Hungarian Academy of Music. Brahms would later promote the fledgling composer’s first published composition, the Piano Quintet in C minor.
Govatos and company offered an impressive performance of the Serenade characterized by a warm tone, a relaxed demeanor and the ability to search out the subtler aspects of the score.
Zhu rejoined the ensemble following intermission for a performance of Brahms’ Piano Quartet in G minor. The work premiered in Hamburg in 1861 with Clara Schumann at the piano. It was orchestrated in 1937 by Arnold Schoenberg who would call Brahms “the reluctant revolutionary” for the way he developed his thematic material, techniques for which Schoenberg himself would become famous.
The ensemble gave a reading that conveyed both the sweetness and simmer of the first movement; the introspective character of the second and the dreamy grandness of the third. The Hungarian, Rondo finale was pure fire, the rhythmic and metric complexities so meticulously executed that the audience rose to its feet with gasps of delight and thunderous applause.
Sunday’s program opened with the Fantasie in F minor for piano, four hands by Franz Schubert. Not a bad choice, since Schubert was one of Brahms’ favorite composers, so much so that he cast the aforementioned piano quartet in the Schubertean mold.
Schubert was after the Mozart the major composer of original four-hand piano music. The Fantasie comes from the last year of the composer’s life. It consists of four movements of unequal proportions. Guest pianists Julie Nishimura and Marcantonio Barone played as one entity, making very clear the architecture of the piece yet never obscuring the wonderful niceties like Schubert’s amazing sense of harmony and canonic writing.
Govatos and Barone did justice to the passion and pathos of Francis Poulenc’s Sonata for Violin and Piano, a work dedicated to the memory of Spanish poet, playwright and theatre director Frederico Garcia Lorca, who was murdered by Nationalist forces at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War. Although Poulenc railed against a “prima donna” violin above an arpeggio piano accompaniment, he followed Brahms’ example in this work by giving each instrument a challenging yet balanced part.
Govatos, Barone and cellist Clancy Newman concluded the concert with a rendering of Brahms’ Piano Trio, No. 2 in C major. The three musicians gave the work the disciplined and coordinated interaction its complex lines demand and judging by audience reaction, achieved the desired result.
The Delaware Chamber Music Festival continues Friday, June 23, 7:30pm and Sunday, June 25, 3:00pm at Wilmington Friends Lower School. A Saturday, June 24, 4:00pm FREE Jazz Concert will also be performed at the Church of Saints Andrew and Matthew, in collaboration with the Boysie Lowery Living Jazz Residency Program (Jonathan Whitney, Director. For full details, visit www.dcmf.org.