The ever-expressive and spontaneous Wu Han and digitally assured Michael Brown on piano enraptured the audience at Trinity-Pawling School in Gardiner auditorium last Friday evening when the feeble, sniffling snow of winter vanished in the late afternoon. They performed three of Brahms’ Hungarian Dances and four of Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances with gusto, impish unison, and éclat. Their fingers were whirling dervishes—Wu Han nimble on the upper register and Michael Brown briskly on the lower register. The ecstatic rhythms nearly brought me up from my seat. My cerebellum felt bathed in that rare and peculiar musical high when one feels one enters an Otherworld.
While appropriating the style of Hungarian culture, Brahms resisted the approach of an ethnomusicologist, putting his own stamp on the music, adopting as he said “his gypsy children” and raising them “with bread and milk.” In their deceptively light artistry of energetic harmonization, these four-hand versions go well beyond the ambiance of parlor room entertainment but they were also just that.
Antonín Dvořák (1843-1904), unlike Smetana’s narrow Czech nationalism, had a broader outlook on music: pan-Slavic at first, then more international. Brahms leant his shoulder to supporting Dvořák’s career; it is no surprise that Brahms’ twenty-one Hungarian Dances (1869-1880) arranged for piano, which significantly influenced the development of ragtime in New Orleans, inspired Dvořák to compose his sixteen Slavonic Dances (1878). The Slavonic Dances were the result of a commission from Brahms’ publisher to compose in a similar vein. In both cases, these dance motifs were their most popular work, and in both cases these were the compositions that gained them popular audience.
Dvořák idealizes the atmosphere of hand-clapping Slavonic dances while appropriating only the rhythmic base as he invents his own delicious harmonies and propulsive melodies (a procedure Brahms followed in a few of his Hungarian Dances). The fast-paced Slavic dance offers folk music style, yet the melodies and amusingly competitive counter-melodies are wickedly original.
Trio in C minor for piano, violin, and cello, Op. 101 by Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) was the last work Brahms composed in 1886 during a prolific summer spent in the Swiss mountains. This composition remains one of the most compressed and dense of all Brahms’ compositions, as it combines emotional turbulence with near-waltz in the Viennese manner. The scherzo in a minor key offers gravitas, even a mood of something secretly repressed. Brown led forthrightly at piano, Arnaud Sussmann was sturdy with delicate shading on violin, while Matthew Lipman robustly played viola.
Quintet for Piano & Strings in A-Major, Op. 81, by Dvořák is a late romantic work with intensely personal feeling (as much of Dvořák’s work is), yet depth of emotion here remains shockingly arresting. The structure at first hearing can appear confusing, since it reports apparent personal recollections in the form of modernist collage—a slide-show—alternately moving with sudden sharpness or blurred focus between memories that are melancholy, joyous, or sweet in the mellow light of later, mature perspective and understanding.
Childhood, adolescence, and adulthood jostle with sharp elbows in this emotional time-traveling salad. Likewise, musical structures were layered and morphing: a scherzo is and is not a traditional scherzo, etc. In the end, amused satisfaction triumphs, overcomes controversial ambiguity with an affirmative, optimistic reversal as melodies and harmonies were leavened by rhythms of melancholic Ukrainian dumka.
On piano Wu Han played (a video of her playing appears below) with confident assurance as she coaxed, usually independently yet at times supporting, four strings in a struggle to convince them that she was the genuine musical fountainhead. The conflict of mood and theory between the piano and strings finally achieves resolution at conclusion with the strings agreeing to let the piano lead at last.
First violinist Arnaud Sussmann on his 1760 Landolfi violin was outstanding. Chad Hoopes on second violin provided sterling support and effective digressions. I was quite impressed by the redolent rounding of Matthew Lipman on viola. Dmitri Atapine on cello did not quite match the rich, plaintive sweetness conjured by David Finckel on the 1994 Deutsche Grammophon recording, yet he managed to gather strength and voice as the exciting performance prospered.
All six performers were from The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. Funding for this marvelous, stratospheric event was supported in part by grants from the New York State Council of the Arts and other generous patrons, and, in this case, especially Bindy and Stephen Kaye.