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Surfing Highs and Lows with Brahms

Music review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Sun Jun 10th, 2018

From left: Jaime Laredo, Pamela Frank, Sharon Robinson, Keith Robinson, Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt, Nokuthula Ngwenyama

The Hudson Valley Chamber Music Circle at Bard College’s Olin Hall offered the program “The Two Glorious Brahms Sextets” which featured Jamie Laredo and Pamela Frank on violins, Nokuthula Ngwenyama and Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt on violas, with Keith Robinson and Sharon Robinson on cellos. Sharon is one of my favorite cello players and it was a treat to hear her play with her very accomplished brother.

Both Brahms string sextets are fairly long and not played that often. I was particularly keen on hearing both at one go, since I have a 1992 EMI cd that appeared to advertise both sextets, but in fact only provided the Scherzo for No. 2 in G major, Op. 36. That was a frustrating annoyance and what better way to solve it than to hear a live performance by truly accomplished players?

Sextet No. 1 in B major, Op. 18, offers a lively tribute to Baroque dance music, with jaunty nods to Bach, Mozart, and Haydn. Layered with variations on infectious dance tunes, it displays varied dynamics in rhythm and volume. The tunes remain memorable and provide great fun for the musicians who exuded that contagious fun as they were playing—the mark of an excellent concert experience for all. Laredo nuanced Telemann and Frank intoned more Mozart, while Stadt shone on first viola. The interplay of sibling cellos delivered an intimate, humorous underpinning of the more cerebral flights of the violins. While I don’t understand how anyone could not like this lively sextet, one might opine that it was slightly simple, except for the concluding Rondo which brought everyone to their feet with vibrant applause and pleasure stamped on their visage.

Op. 36 was a more interesting intellectual endeavor with layered complexity in the adroit interaction of the six instruments that produced unusual combinations of sounds and a textured interplay among instrument that was astonishing. Here Jamie Laredo excelled with lyric intensity as he articulated a voice distinct from the “crowd” that followed and supported him. Not least in that endeavor was Ngwenyama on first viola who offered a complimentary and sometimes challenging sound.

The optimism of Pamela Frank buoyed the sextet as the two cellos often stole the spotlight with their lower riffs. Brahms really knew how to showcase the cello. While the music was complex the rhythm was an easy delight to follow as it conveyed a much wider array of emotions than Op. 16: mysterious tangents, unexplained pathos, and exuberant joy. While the first movement was haunting, the second plunged into Baroque counterpoint, and third movement fugue allowing each instrument to swell and fade by turns. As with Op. 18, the concluding movement shouted with optimistic celebration. The audience demanded three long bows and the faces of each player glowed with the unearthly certainty of rejoicing achievement.

The next concert in the Hudson Valley Chamber Music Circle Series will feature Trio con Brio Copenhagen performing Beethoven’s Piano Trio in E flat major, Op. 70, no. 2; Brent Sorensen’s Phantasmagoria for Piano Trio; and Anton Arensky’s Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor, Op. 32.

P.S. In 1996 I checked out the three largest music stores in Moscow while I was awaiting adoption papers to be processed. I was looking for recordings of Arensky. Each store told me that they had none, that no one was interested in him anymore (even laughing at me), but I did discover one lonely Arensky cd in a sale remainder bin for less than a dollar. At that point in time (under Boris Yeltsin) Russians were pretending to have entered the 21st century, yet they knew nothing of that coming century, or what was going on in the present. Does this ring a hometown bell right now?