Above: Johannes Brahms and Antonín Dvořák
~ Author: Oberon
Tuesday January 30, 2018 - This evening's highly enjoyable program offered by Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center brought us works by Johannes Brahms and Antonín Dvořák: music for piano 4-hands by each composer, with a piano trio from Brahms and a piano quintet from Dvořák. Six excellent musicians were on hand to delight an audience who had chosen great music over the SOTU.
Pianists Wu Han and Michael Brown shared the Steinway for the opening work: selections from Dvořák's Slavonic Dances. Wu Han - clad is brilliant red - presided over the lower octaves and Mr. Brown the higher. The chosen Dances, two from opus 46 and two from opus 72, formed a perfect set.
With the joyous opening of opus 46, #1, the cares and concerns of daily life were swept away; this Presto in C-major moves from exuberance to subtlety and back again. The players clearly enjoyed sharing the keyboard: in his program note, Mr. Brown compared playing 4-hands with playing doubles in tennis. And he further remarked that "...sharing one pedal is as strange as someone else brushing your teeth!" This duo got on like a house afire, vying in technical brilliance and relishing the more thoughtful passages. Opus 46, #2 has a darker, E-minor start, but then turns sprightly; Dvořák alternately accelerates and then pumps the brakes throughout this Allegretto scherzando.
The dances of opus 72 are in general less extroverted and rambunctious than those of the 46. The pianists kept to E-minor with #2 which has a lyrical sadness and an emotional pull at first but later becomes sparkly and charming. They rounded off this opening Dvořák set with opus 72, #1, Molto vivace in B-major. This commences with a rocking rhythm and shows fresh vitality before it quietens with some lovely upper-range shimmers only to re-ignite as it hastens to its finish.
For the Piano Trio in C-minor, Op. 101 of Johannes Brahms, Mr. Brown was joined by violinist Paul Huang and cellist Dmitri Atapine. This trio was composed in 1886 while the composer was summering at Hofstetten, Switzerland, and it was premiered in December of that year, with the composer at the piano, Jeno Hubay playing violin, and David Popper as cellist.
The opening Allegro energico begins passionately, and the strings play often in unison. Following an animated passage, there comes a deep melody; the movement ends almost abruptly.
The trio's second movement starts very quietly, almost hesitantly, the strings are muted and given over to almost sneaky plucking as the piano holds forth. Then violin and cello have a dialogue. The pizzicati recur, and the sotto voce atmosphere of the music is sustained.
The Andante develops yet another conversation: this time between the duetting strings and the piano. All three musicians showed lovely dynamic gradations throughout. Mr. Brown's dreamy and evocative playing drew sighing motifs from the violin and cello. A sudden burst of passion ends the Andante.
The rhythmic vitality of the concluding Allegro molto undergoes a mood change in an interlude where Mr. Huang's polished tone could be savoured. Melodious exchanges lead on to a fervent finish. The three players' sense of fraternity was evinced as they bowed to the audience's sincere applause.
Following the interval, our two pianists played three of Brahms' Hungarian Dances. Wu Han and Mr. Brown had switched places on the piano bench, giving Mr. Brown the deeper registers whilst Wu Han shone in the soprano range.
The Poco sostenuto in F-minor commences with a brooding quality, but then speeds up. A witty, almost 'toy piano' feeling charms in the central section before a return to the starting point. The music dances on to a fun finale. The Allegretto in A-major has a droll start and some playful hesitations: the two pianists seemed like co-conspirators here. Mr. Brown relished the low melody of the Allegro molto in G-minor whilst Wu Han's sweetly struck higher notes felt like raindrops. The music then grows lively, with a gypsy lilt.
A sterling performance of Dvořák's Piano Quintet in A-major, Op. 81 (dating from 1887) made for the evening's perfect finale, with violinists Chad Hoopes and Paul Huang, violist Matthew Lipman, and cellist Dmitri Atapine joining Wu Han.
Mr. Atapine sets the opening Allegro ma non tanto in motion with a nobly-played cello theme; there follows a warm tutti passage where we're assured of a beautifully blended performance. Wu Han's gorgeous playing (throughout) underscores the silken high range of Mr. Hoopes' violin; then Mr. Lipman takes up a viola theme which is passed to Mr. Hoopes. Pulsing strings lead to an expansive passage; the Hoopes violin sings deliciously. We can revel in the intertwined voices for a few moments before the movement dashes to an ending.
The second movement, Andante con moto, was a source of true magic tonight, with Wu Han again displaying her gifts for creating atmosphere. Mr. Lipman has the melody; a tempo increase brings us duetting violins. Then comes an engrossing passage: Mr. Atapine's cello sings deep as the violinists pluck; then Mssrs. Hoopes and Atapine sound a gentle, rolling motif in support of Wu Han's luminous playing. Mr. Lipman takes up the main theme with rich lyricism. A sudden animation is calmed by the limpid piano, and then the 'engrossing passage' is repeated, with unbelievable subtlety.
Chad Hoopes sends the Scherzo off with a light touch; Wu Han's dazzling playing has me under a spell. The viola and cello engage us, Mr. Atapine's attentiveness and sense of joy in his playing is inspiring to behold. Following a luminous interlude, the cellist propels the Scherzo to a lively finish.
The Finale: Allegro starts with a petite into, and then embarks on a flowing dance. I absolutely loved watching Wu Han here, ever-alert and eyeing her colleagues with affection, she was clearly having a marvelous time of it. The mood shifts unexpectedly as Mr. Hoopes plays what seems like a hymn...or a prayer. Then the music goes on its lilting way to a jubilant close.