Opening concert gets Brahms series off to glorious start

By Peter Jacobi H-T Reviewer

Between this just-past Sunday afternoon and a Sunday afternoon next April, eight distinguished members of the faculty at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music will be immersed in a fascinating and noble performance project: to play all the chamber music Johannes Brahms wrote for three or more musicians.

That effort will fill six Sunday concerts to the brim with music and, in the process, probably fill Auer Hall to the brim with Brahms enthusiasts. The audience that came to Auer on Sunday for the first concert of the series had good reason to be excited about what was and what is to come.

The octet of musicians began their “Brahms: An Intimate Portrait” series with the Piano Trio in B Major, Opus 8; the Piano Quartet Number 3 in C Minor, and the String Sextet Number 2 in G Major, more than two solid hours of music. And who are “they?” They, the project participants, are instrumentalists of vast experience and reputation, each also an IU professor with a studio of students: pianists Evelyne Brancart and Norman Krieger, violinists Jorja Fleezanis and Simin Ganatra, violists Edward Gazouleas and Stephen Wyrczynski, and cellists Eric Kim and Brandon Vamos, a stellar line-up to be sure.

Sunday’s program opened with the Opus 8 Piano Trio, both the earliest of Brahms’ chamber works and one of the latest: earliest because he wrote it at age 21, making it the first such composition that he kept rather than destroyed in the furnace; latest because he kept fiddling with the trio over a span of 36 years. And even then, he wondered, according to what he wrote to his beloved Clara Schumann, “It will not be so muddled up as it was — but will it be better?”

We know today that he needn’t have wondered. It’s a gloriously passionate piece of music, intimate when called upon to be but also scored symphonically, with a trio of instruments caused to sound like a far heftier ensemble, a talent for which Brahms had throughout his compositional life. Add the passion that pianist Krieger, violinist Ganatra, and cellist Kim contributed to the score, and what one heard sizzled. Burn, thankfully, the reading did not; everything remained under control, though invitingly heated.

The Opus 60 Piano Quartet also received extended treatment; 20 years separated its first finish and the second. When initially written, Brahms was emotionally torn by friend Robert Schumann’s mental illness and concerned about Robert’s wife Clara and their seven children. The melancholy opening Allegro non troppo set the tone for the quartet, undoubtedly inspired by events in the composer’s life.

Twenty years later, circumstances involving his unrequited love for Clara continued to have an impact on the quartet’s music, especially on the work’s Andante movement, a radiant love song that provides an emotional center for the quartet, one that can bring tears to a listener. Surely it was so as performed by pianist Brancart, violinist Fleezanis, violist Wyrczynski, and cellist Vamos; their interpretation of the music’s stunning beauty made clear why it has become one of the composer’s best loved works.

The six string players of the octet took good care of the Opus 36 String Quartet Number 2, a piece written while Brahms had an aborted love affair with another woman. Some say it was written because, after the break, he felt like a “scoundrel” and needed to assuage his conscience. Whether that worked, who knows? But ours is the reward, another Brahms work of substance and intensity, meat for Sunday’s sextet of talents and satisfaction for an enthusiastic audience.

A propitious opening, this fine concert.

© Harold Times Online 2016

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