Day six out of ten arrived. While experiencing and continuing to celebrate a constant overactive exuberance at the 2017 SICMF, it provided us with a fascinating Faculty Concert in which listeners could involve themselves and even be submerged into the fascinating process of dissecting and contrasting two representatives of a full-blown mid-European Romanticism, and their handling of chamber music: Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) in his Piano Quartet No.1 in G minor, Op. 25 and Ernö Dohnányi (1877-1960) with his Sextet in C major, Op. 37 for the unusual combination of piano, string trio, clarinet and horn. Different approaches towards very different works resulted in very different end results. Should it have been like that? PAUL BOEKKOOI wonders…
German born Brahms and Hungarian born Dohnányi only met each other a couple of times very briefly. It happened in 1895 when Dohnányi was anxious to bring his recently completed Piano Quintet in C minor, Op. 1 under Brahms’ attention. Janós Koessler, Dohnányi’s composition teacher at the Budapest Academy of Music, a well connected man, knew Brahms personally. He wanted the 18-year old composer to come to Bad Ischl to perform it at that summer resort. Dohnányi couldn’t afford to travel there, but Brahms, after receiving the score, speedily arranged a performance which was given by the Kneisel String Quartet with Arthur Nikisch, who was at that time also the conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, as pianist. Brahms told Koessler: “I could not have written it better myself.” In November of the same year Brahms arranged that Dohnányi could be in Vienna to perform it during a meeting of that city’s Composers’ Association. The young Hungarian did speak a couple of times with Brahms about various music related topics. It would turn out to be their first and last time. Brahms passed away on April 3, 1897.
This Wednesday’s concert opened with the Dohnányi, performed by Siwoo Kim (violin), Juan-Miguel Hernandez (viola), Thomas Carroll (‘cello), Ferdinand Steiner (clarinet), Jeff Nelsen (horn) and Nina Schumann (piano). This Opus 37 from early 1935 would turn out to be his last composed chamber music work. It is a massive score of some 140 pages and a kind of multi-farewell to various musical styles which influenced him throughout a lifetime of both performing as a pianist and conducting widely, while continuing and extending his exploitations as composer on other, often more lucrative fields than chamber music. Dohnányi composed it over an extended period when he tried to recover from thrombosis only months after he has been appointed as director of the Budapest Academy in July 1934.
The six musicians obviously decided on a bold approach towards this swansong of sorts. It surely can take it, but it is arguably not the only option. Many Brahmsian influences are still strongly recognisable some 40 years after the two composers’ meeting, but time marched on and many other influences make their mark during the four interrelated movements, lasting some 30 or more minutes. To mention the most obvious ones, one can identify jazz elements, a dark, somewhat morbid march, a lopsided Viennese waltz and some slight influences reminding one of Gershwin and Korngold.
As the six musicians opened the Allegro appassionata with a forthright attack, the ensemble, within seconds, suddenly came to a halt. I believe from both very reliable and truthful resources plus some detective work that all of this was a planned process and related to the fact that some of the players started off in the wrong key. Such an occurrence can especially happen to the most dedicated among musicians…
The performance had a symphonic allure, with volume on high levels and a driven pulse which did not leave much room for a more refined, chamber music like interplay. The overall impression of the playing was one of overloaded romanticism. From the perspective of sitting in the back row of the Endler, the French horn sounded loud and dominating. Is this perhaps a strange, acoustically related occurrence?
Nina Schumann performed with her usual clarity of line and textual detail, but was still swamped at times – even in ff and fff passages. The ensemble as a whole could have tempered the robustness with more attention to sharply defined dynamic contrasts. The overtly illustrative point making in certain sections of Dohnányi’s score was strongly illustrated, but the potentially more subtle ones were lost along the way. This heart-on-sleeve approach has its plus factors, but alas also its limitations. However, the audience’s response proved that they would perhaps not agree with this at all.
A remarkable contrast with this approach and interpretation was experienced in the evening’s second work, the Brahms Piano Quartet No. 1 in G minor, Op. 25. Daniel Rowland (violin), Tatjana Masurenko (viola), Alexander Buzlov (‘cello), and Megan Geoffrey Prins (piano), were magically refined and alert in their characterisation of the relatively young Brahms’ inspiration. More was also done with their efforts to relate with colouristic refinement to the moods and Romantic passions Brahms often buried so deeply under the music’s surface.
Although the string playing was often full of perfectly calculated intenseness in the opening Allegro as well as in the achingly beautiful melodic lines of the Andante con moto third movement, there was at all times also a full awareness of the fact that Brahms could be amazingly delicate and even fragile in expressing himself. It was the more meticulous attention to these sometimes only secondary details which made the listening experience so enduring.
Experiencing such fine ensemble playing between all four musicians is something I can’t recall from any previous performances by South African musicians. The playing was also full of rhythmic precision in the amazingly fast tempo of the Rondo alla Zingarese. Prins was fully alert of some of the pitfalls in the score, but with a fine sense for ensemble work and impeccable preparation, it was obvious that he was fully up to the task. A performance which catapulted the necessary excitement, but also expressive warmth and comfort.