Brahms: Four Songs Op. 43. Clarinet Sonata No. 2 in E flat major Op. 120 No. 2. Clarinet Trio in A minor Op. 114. String Sextet No. 2 in G major Op. 36.; Brahms: Two Songs for Voice, Viola and Piano Op. 91. Clarinet Quintet Op. 115. String Sextet No. 1 in B flat major Op. 18; David Small, baritone; David Shifrin, clarinet; Martin Beaver, viola; Clive Greensmith, cello; Anton Nel, piano; Kelly Kuo, piano; Miró Quartet; McCullough Theatre, Butler School of Music, University of Texas, Austin, Texas: November 9 & 11, 2016
Naming an all-Brahms program “Love and Duty” suggests that, as violist John Largess and the brief program notes confirmed, it was built around a theme – in this case, an examination of the relationship between Johannes Brahms, Robert Schumann and Robert’s wife, Clara. History tells us that Brahms and Clara had a very close relationship, which apparently was never consummated out of respect/duty for Clara’s husband, Robert. Despite the fact that the program notes for “Love and Duty” were insufficient, and that the selected works bore little or no apparent connection to that theme, these concerts turned out to be exceptional events for anyone interested in the chamber music of Brahms.
The internationally renowned Miró Quartet, a beloved musical asset for the city of Austin, has been in residence at the Butler School of Music for many years. Joining them for these Brahms concerts were several of their colleagues , as well as some distinguished visitors, among them violinist/violist Martin Beaver and cellist Clive Greensmith, both formerly members of the Tokyo String Quartet which disbanded in 2013. Beaver and Greensmith now teach at the Colburn School of performing arts in Los Angeles. Another illustrious visitor was clarinetist David Schifrin who was featured in three major works from Brahms last years (1891-94).
The two string sextets (Programs 1 and 2) were written early in Brahms’ career, before he had reached his early thirties. Major works, each lasting more than forty minutes, they are an unending source of satisfaction for anyone interested in how solo string instruments can be used in interesting combinations of two, three and four, while reserving the power and richness of the full ensemble for the big moments. For a string player it must be a joy to play these pieces with friends and colleagues, to enjoy the imitation, the give and take and the ebb and flow of the composition. In the hands of the Miró Quartet, Beaver and Greensmith, the challenges of these brilliant sextets seemed absolutely effortless, although their near-perfection was undoubtedly the result of painstaking rehearsal. This was truly joyous music-making. I grew up with a stellar recording of the Op. 18 Sextet led by Isaac Stern and Pablo Casals but this live performance by the Miró Quartet, Beaver and Greensmith, while very different – much faster tempi and much lighter in texture – was every bit as good.
In his last years, Brahms made the acquaintance of clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld and was inspired to write a series of pieces for him, the best of which by far is the Clarinet Quintet. In this piece, Brahms wasn’t interested in showing off the clarinet but in using it to express the bittersweet emotions of his autumnal years. The Quintet is a melancholy, sublimely beautiful work. The closing passage, in which Brahms brings back the opening theme from the first movement in a more subdued version, is profoundly moving. Shifrin and the members of the Miró Quartet were as one in their phrasing, dynamics and intonation – a lovely performance.
Baritone David Small contributed the Four Songs Op. 43 in the first concert, and the Two Songs with viola Op. 91 in the second concert. He was most impressive in “Von ewiger Liebe” (Of everlasting love) Op. 43 No. 1, beginning sotto voce and later building to an enormous climax. The “Song of Lord Falkenstein” Op. 91 No. 4 was also excellent, with Small demonstrating complete mastery of the tongue-twisting text. Kelly Kuo managed the galloping horse effects with vigor and dexterity.
The Two Songs Op. 91 were written for a contralto voice; the substitution of a baritone struck me as less than ideal. That said, Martin Beaver played the viola parts in these songs beautifully, especially the Christmas carol which permeates “Geistliches Wiegenlied” (Holy Lullaby).
Contributing significantly to audience satisfaction in these concerts was McCullough Theatre, which is especially kind to string instruments, allowing us to appreciate both the clarity and the richness of tone of each different timbre. And how those pizzicati projected into the hall, even pianissimo! Great musicians in a great hall! This was Brahms chamber music as it should be played and heard. Kudos to Texas Performing Arts and the Butler School of Music for presenting these exceptional concerts.
Paul E. Robinson is a Canadian conductor and broadcaster and the author of four books on conductors. He writes regularly about music for Musical Toronto, Myscena and Classical Voice North America,”the web journal of the Music Critics Association of North America.” This review appeared first on myscena.org.