Music@Menlo LIVE: Through Brahms ( 7 Disc CD Box) reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

June 15, 2012.

Music@Menlo LIVE: Through Brahms  is the ninth boxed set to come out of Music@Menlo, David Finckel’s and Wu Han’s summer chamber music festival near San Francisco. Every year’s offering is generally organized around a theme,—a period, a composer, a place. This 11th year the theme is Brahms, his music and the music that connects him to his past and future.

Since 2003, Grammy Award-winning sound engineer Da-Hong Seetoo, has recorded the festival’s concerts in 24-bit sound for Music@Menlo’s in-house label. This seven-CD set of live recordings from the 2011 festival, is very good.

The notice that follows is my attempt to guide the reader through the contents of the set with a focus on the intention that organized it for the purpose of enhancing appreciation of Brahms by showing where he came from musically, and where his energy went into the music that followed him. It goes without saying that the players are gathered from the world’s best and are worth listening to. Their names can be found listed at the end of this piece. No doubt everyone might have access to recordings of other performances of particular pieces they prefer. I have no interest in contesting that.

What does interest me is to share the excitement and encourage the insight that these well-played, well-recorded performances produce because of the indispensible context of  this dedicated “Through Brahms” experience. You will find the names of the players listed below.

Disc I sets Brahms in the context of his reverence for the Baroque and Classical traditions. We get the Trio Sonata no. 12 in d minor, op. 1, RV 63 La Follia  by Antonio Vivaldi, a lovely composition and also Brahms’ source for the elegiac theme of his Sextet in B-flat Major, Op.18. We also get Mozart’s only mature violin sonata in a minor key, the Violin Sonata in e minor, K. 304. Brahms’ important connection with songs and friendship is represented by songs from  the cycle “Myrthen” which Schumann composed as a wedding gift for Clara.

Disc II highlights Brahms’s lifelong fascination with Gypsy folk music, a taste he shared with Haydn as we hear in the “Rondo all’ongarese (1795)” from the Piano Trio in G Major. Gypsy themes appear in Brahms’ Hungarian Dances nos. 1,6, and 5, and in the three Slavonic Dances by his protégée, Dvorak. The vocal tradition Brahms drew on is represented on this disc by three late songs by Schubert. The orchestral breadth of Brahm’s chamber-music can be heard in the Sonata for Two Pianos in f minor, Op. 34b.

Disc III continues the theme of Gypsy music connected to Brahms. There is a reminder of this theme in Brahms’s seminal Opus 87 Piano Trio, whose plaintive second movement intones a traditional Hungarian folk lament. Disc III also explores Brahms’ reach into  20th C  music exemplified by miniatures for solo violin and viola composed “alla zingarese” by Fritz Kreisler, Henryk Wieniawski,  Hermann Schulenburg, Charles Robert Valdez. For the sake of its beauty and its role as a forebearer, we also get to enjoy Johann Sebastian Bach’s Trio Sonata from Musical Offering, BWV 1079.

Disc IV highlights the strong vocal tradition Brahms inherited from Franz Schubert. Schubert’s Notturno in E-flat Major foreshadows how Brahms’ Romantic leanings are tempered by classical restraint. Schumann’s marvellous Fairytales for Clarinet, Viola and Piano were composed in the weeks after first meeting Brahms, and foreshadows Brahms interest in the clarinet later in life. The warmth, intimacy, expressive nuance, and beguiling lyricism of Brahm’s vocal work glow in the Liebeslieder Waltzes. The unique scoring of the Opus 91 Songs for Mezzo-Soprano, Viola, and Piano adds to these qualities an exquisite melancholy.  The Romantic lyricism of Brahms’s lieder are echoed in Rachmaninov’s Vocalise.

Disc V continues to explore influences, beginning with the composer whom Brahms revered above all others, Johann Sebastian Bach. The craggy architectonics of the Bach  Cello Suite no. 2 in d minor, BWV 1008 arise like the castellated enclosures of a stone palace. Arnold Schoenberg’s Phantasy for Violin and Piano, op. 47 that follows, sounds surprisingly similar to the Bach, arising from similarly bare granitic chunks. The structural rigor of Schoenberg’s piece also pays homage to the craftsmanship of Brahms’s final scores. From there the music on this Disc softens to Brahms’ Scherzo in c minor, F-A-E,  a work that retains evidence of cragginess but with a melodic, legato line restored, thoughmigrated to the edge of chromaticism. The baroque, whimsical complexity in the Brahms  spins out into a wild abandon to Ravel’s Tzigane which shows the impact of Gypsy influence, the solo voice of the violin moving forward more melodically and warm than in the Schoenberg, but in its own way is as crazily 20th century.  The disc closes with the Piano Quintet by the contemporary American composer John Harbison, a work audibly haunted by Brahms’s Opus 34 Piano Quintet.

Disc 6  is dedicated to Brahms’ relationship with the Schumanns, Robert and Clara, major influences on Brahms in both art and life.  Clara’s Piano Trio and Robert’s Spanische Liebslieder, the inspiration for Brahms’s own Liebeslieder Waltze share the disc that concludes with Brahms’s exuberant and joyful Opus 111 String Quintet.

Disc 7 is all late Brahms and signals the end of the European musical era born of Haydn and Mozart, nurtured by Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn, and Schumann, and finally embodied in the expressivity of Brahms’s finest music. The music of the end of Brahms’ life sings a bittersweet farewell in the soulful timbres of the viola, the clarinet, and the piano. Sonata no. 2 in E-flat Major for Viola and Piano, op. 120, no. 2, Intermezzo in e minor, op. 116, no. 5 , Intermezzo in b minor, op. 119, no. 1, and the Clarinet Quintet in b minor, op. 115.

I highly recommend the pleasure of listening to Through Brahms. It is a pleasant way to go through Brahms’ output, and to go through Brahms to the music that through him connects us to the past, present, and perhaps, the future.

Here are the musicians whose work you will enjoy.
◦    Paul Appleby, Tenor
    ◦    Alessio Bax, Piano, Harpsichord
    ◦    Carey Bell, Clarinet, Bass Clarinet
    ◦    Yehonatan Berick, Violin
    ◦    Lucille Chung, Piano
    ◦    Sasha Cooke, Mezzo-soprano
    ◦    David Finckel, Cello
    ◦    Jorja Fleezanis, Violin
    ◦    Gilbert Kalish, Piano
    ◦    Ani Kavafian, Violin
    ◦    Eric Kim, Cello
    ◦    Sooyun Kim, Flute
    ◦    Yura Lee, Violin, Viola
    ◦    Laurence Lesser, Cello
    ◦    Cho-Liang Lin, Violin
    ◦    Kelly Markgraf, Baritone
    ◦    Erin Morley, Soprano
    ◦    Paul Neubauer, Viola
    ◦    Elmar Oliveira, Violin
    ◦    Jon Kimura Parker, Piano
    ◦    Juho Pohjonen, Piano
    ◦    Philip Setzer, Violin
    ◦    David Shifrin, Clarinet
    ◦    Arnaud Sussmann, Violin
    ◦    Ian Swensen, Violin
    ◦    Paul Watkins, Cello
    ◦    Katherine Whyte, Soprano
    ◦    Wu Han, Piano

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