JWR Articles: Live Event - The Brahms Cycle Concludes (Artistic Director: Margaret Gay) - March 2, 2010 id="543337086">

The Brahms Cycle Concludes

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SK 57 499
Fitting conclusion to a memorable series

The final installment of the nine-year presentation of Brahms’ chamber music with piano wrapped up with the German master’s very last Piano Trio (Op. 114). As befits the truly marvellous variety of works offered by the Gallery Players of Niagara at all of their concerts, the usually heard clarinet version (fatefully/fortunately it took the inspired excellence of clarinettist Richard Mühlfeld to draw Brahms out of retirement to which pianists can thank him for Op. 116-119—cross-reference below) was replaced in favour of the composer-sanctioned viola adaptation.

That decision proved to be a good one on many fronts: the change of colour from single-reed-and-wind to strings-resin-and-bow provided a seldom-heard example of the composer’s skill of creating a vehicle for the alto member of the string family; the (more literal) family-and-friends-pleasing atmosphere on both sides of the footlights confirmed once again the unquantifiable value of the combined ensemble experience of Margaret Gay, Patrick Jordan and David Louie, demonstrating an ease-of-communication that only comes after years of collaborating with one another; the blend of timbres gave the audience a unique colourization of the magnificently-crafted score.

The opening “Allegro” spoke convincingly to all of the above observations and showed off Gay’s considerable abilities to stellar effect. The “early music” (can music be late?) expert —once unleashed—stood head-to-head with many of the richly-resonating “Romantic” practitioners on the planet. Jordan, too, dug dark and deep with only a few of his excursions to the upper reaches slightly marring the overall effect. As usual, Louie anchored the ensemble with his customary aplomb and steadiness, yet all three protagonists—at one point or another—failed to bring the numerous dotted-quarter/eighth-note rhythmic combinations to razor-sharp life.

After the exceptionally well-linked “Adagio” (the violist’s last note becomes the first, albeit in a different tonality) was blessed with an ideal tempo and filled the room with its harmonic warmth and melodic radiance; totally at one with Brahms’ orchestration and voicing, the afternoon sun flooded the hall with brilliant rays simultaneously with Louie’s turn taking centre stage.

The highlight of the ever-affable “Andantino grazioso” was the piano’s deft preparation for the “Trio” to come; curiously, the return was not quite as seamless. The closing “Allegro” (courageously launched in near-attacca style) was a pleasure at every syncopation and extraordinarily convincing when all three players thundered into the coda, bringing this resounding work and the much-admired series to a satisfying finish. Here’s to the next cycle, whatever it might be!

On the other side of intermission came Fauré’s second (of two) piano quartets. Violinist Julie Baumgartel joined her colleagues and added still more sheen to the sunny proceedings. The near-constantly rippling music, with much off-beat punctuation driving it forward, has a decidedly orchestral tone, keeping all three bows fully engaged and active even as a seemingly unending cascade of notes flew from the well-tempered pianist. The pizzicato-fed “Scherzo”—with hints of Ravel and dollops of Bohemia slipping into the mix—was especially enjoyable. The “Adagio’s” dramatic beginning (which threatens to become the Rachmaninoff C-sharp minor Prelude at any moment) was appropriately lush and emotionally charged as required. The “Finale” was notable for Jordan’s exquisite rendering of the second subject and copious—at times capricious—helpings from all of rolling triplets that seldom missed their whirling marks. JWR

Brahms Trio for Piano, Clarinet and Cello, in A Minor, Op. 114
Sony SK 57 499
Three stars

Historical Comparison

This 1995 CD (recorded in 1993) featuring Emanuel Ax, Richard Stoltzman and Yo-Yo Ma—three of the finest practitioners of their respective arts—is sadly too self-indulgent to truly lift the notes and the spirit behind them off the page. Recording engineer Charles Harbutt favours the clarinet even more than this former player deems proper, leaving the piano a tad distant from his amiable colleagues. As above, the dotted rhythms wreak a wee bit of havoc even as Ma lays down a delectable low end and crafts superlative changes of register while Ax brings his special understanding of this repertoire into a magnificent display of weight and flow in the closing material.

Stoltzman’s vibrato and singular style works beautifully in the opening statement of the “Adagio,” which Ma accepts and follows in turn, creating one continuously evolving line. Ax’s repeated chords are, happily, never the same. Once the second subject is launched (over velvet pizzicati) and the ideas become more conversational (a technique of development that eludes Fauré and many others) the forward direction is lost: sound trumps substance and the music can nearly be heard to gasp for air as it crosses the finish line.

The third movement is more “andantino” than graceful, with the “Trio” appearing as a surprise rather than the inevitable next step. The slight feeling of coquettishness that Louie found at times in his delivery would be most welcome here.

The “Finale’s” gruff tone works initially but needs more piano presence (especially at the heavenly top). It struggled a tad through the syncopation before the collective fire took hold of the magically complex kindling and thrust the music forward to its powerful end.

A performance with much to admire, yet the definitive version has yet to be captured. JWR

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Artistic Director - Margaret Gay
Piano - David Louie
Violin - Julie Baumgartel
Viola - Patrick Jordan
Trio for Piano, Clarinet and Cello, in A Minor, Op. 114 - Johannes Brahms
Piano Quartet No. 1 in C Minor, Op. 15 - Gabriel Fauré
Further information, future screening/performance/exhibition dates,
purchase information, production sponsors:
City of St. Catharines Gallery Players of Niagara
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