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Tuesdays with Johannes - II

New York
Merkin Concert Hall
06/12/2018 -  
Johannes Brahms: Scherzo in C minor from Sonata “F-A-E” – Horn Trio in E-flat major, Op. 40
Robert Schumann: Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor, Op. 63
Clara Schumann: Three Romances for Violin and Piano, Op. 22

Pedja Muzijevic (piano), St. Luke’s Chamber Ensemble: Stewart Rose (horn), Krista Bennion Feeney (violin), Myron Lutzke (cello)

K. Bennion Feeney

“Joachim, then engaged at the Hannover court, reported to Clara that the king was in total ‘ecstasy’ over the Romances and could ‘hardly wait’ to enjoy such ‘marvelous, heavenly pleasure’ again.”
Nancy B. Reich, Clara Schumann

“Facets of Brahms” continues with reminiscences of a father who was a horn player and the composer himself learning this extraordinary instrument at an early age. When his mother died in 1865, his memories of childhood domesticity spurred him on to compose the wonderfully zaftig opus 40. Interestingly, Brahms insisted on a Waldhorn (natural horn) rather than the recently accepted “modern” French horn. The piece clearly sounds more sylvan with the natural horn in place (the first part came to Brahms as he walked in the Black Forest) but it is hardly ever offered with this instrumentation any longer. Pity.

This current concert began with a snippet, one movement contributed by the young Brahms to a collaborative effort that included Schumann as a co-composer. This fragment was quite spirited and reminded that Brahms had begun his professional career as a nineteen-year-old accompanist to the Hungarian violinist Ede Reményi. Much of the incipient composer’s southern Danubian accent was formed in these early days and this small sample is a fine example. The performance, with St. Luke’s concertmaster Krista Bennion Feeney and pianist Pedja Muzijevic, was lively and energetically spirited.

No work of chamber music is more stirring than the Schumann Op. 63. We are always rooting for this troubled composer, especially those of us who have had to live in the shadows for any appreciable length of time. The most powerful movements of chamber music written by Brahms, those in the Piano Quintet, Op. 34 and, especially, the Piano Quartet, Op. 25 would simply not have reached their final levels of intensity without Schumann exposing the mysteries of his own chamber works (again, the incredible frisson of the senior composer’s two chamber efforts utilizing the same instrumentation as in the later Brahms pieces). Clara also contributed mightily to the younger man’s emotional level but in a much different manner.

This current performance was notable for the “church bell” sounds of the piano in the first movement and a joyous plethora of themes in the remaining body of the work. There is also, of course, a hint of despair and confusion so typical of Schumann’s unique ability to transcribe his dark personality into his compositions. Overall the work is a treasure trove of gorgeous themes and the current trio did a fine job of emphasizing these musical jewels.

Clara Wieck was Romantic music’s Mary Wollstonecraft, overshadowed by her creative husband but interesting in her own right. She was renowned as a piano soloist but this talent was double-sided as husband Robert was crippled while in the process of becoming a keyboard virtuoso by his teacher tying his various fingers together for “strengthening”. There existed a strange dynamic in the Schumann household, exacerbated by Brahms and his totally transparent love for each of the two artists. The correspondence between Johannes and Clara is particularly revealing (see the article The Suicide Quartet). These three rarely heard short pieces were the jewel of the evening, especially the middle Allegretto. Bravo to St. Luke’s for keeping this music alive and vibrant.

Unfortunately, the program ended with a misfire. We have a horn player in the family and so are especially aware of the vicissitudes of this instrument’s rebellious nature, but Stewart Rose let this monster simply get away from him. He and Ms. Feeney stood through the entire piece and, although experienced concertgoers might expect a few wrong notes or inconsistent embouchure from a horn player, this rendition was replete with these problems. The less said about this performance the better, but it was disconcerting to have this be the conclusion of this otherwise fine concert.

Next week the festival concludes with two more familiar pieces, one by Brahms and one by Beethoven, but arranged to sound very different than what we listeners would normally expect. Should be interesting...

Fred Kirshnit



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