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Three of a Kind

New York
Alice Tully Hall
11/24/2002 -  
Johannes Brahms: The Three Piano Trios
Cho-Liang Lin (violin)
Gary Hoffman (cello)
Andre-Michel Schub (piano)

The summer of 1886 was an extremely happy time for Johannes Brahms. Vacationing at a lovely farmhouse in Thun, he found his Muse in the attractive soprano Hermine Spies. She was North German like him and shared his passion for the Swiss lake country. This was the breakout year for Brahms’ mature emotional period, his life an open score for those who care to examine it: the early masterpieces, such as the Piano Concerto # 1, are filled with the impetuosity and impressionableness of youth, the C Minor Piano Quartet, written during two distinctly different periods, a combination of lust and tranquil remembrance, the later essays for clarinet reflective and autumnal. This sunlit period of the 1880’s produced works of intensely felt ardor tempered with spiritual and intellectual repose, the desire no less strong, just more strongly expressed. The ”Double” Concerto comes from this time, as does the febrile Violin Sonata # 3. The crowning achievement, however, is the mighty Trio, Op. 101 (not coincidentally, another C Minor piece), perhaps Brahms’ most successful integration of depth of emotion and breadth of wisdom.

What made its performance by three of the finest single performers of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center so exceptional this afternoon was the driving intensity of expression so expertly tempered by the restraints (but not constraints) of mature poetic utterance. This particular group has obviously worked very hard to develop just the right touch of finely tuned phrasemaking in order to more perfectly state the case (in marvelously understated terms) for the strengthening of passion by forging it in the furnace of the intellect. Cho-Liang Lin and Andre-Michel Schub play together on a regular basis as recital partners and have found their Aramis in Gary Hoffman. Seldom have I heard such unity of language and profundity of thought in a small ensemble.

The most expansive of all of the Brahms chamber pieces has to be the youthful Op. 8. Two significant facts come to mind:

1. The work is the only major composition by Brahms to be premiered in the United States, in fact, right here in New York by a progressive trio which included violinist Theodore Thomas, later the founder of the Chicago Symphony.
2. In later life, the composer extensively revised the trio to tone down somewhat its ardent Romanticism. Having done so, he couldn’t bear to part with the original and so perceptively kept it in the catalogue, however confusingly not assigning the revision its own opus number.

As in all three of the trios performed this day, this version was especially pleasing for its controlled eloquence, not sacrificing emotion for clarity, but rather crystallizing it by stripping away any extraneous baggage and communicating quite directly with an appreciative sold-out audience. Mr. Schub was a student of Rudolf Serkin and his mentor’s intellectual approach was apparent: what really emerged was a secure sense of truth and integrity. It seemed that Brahms himself was at the helm, not only by the strength of the pianist’s left hand, but also by the absolute surety that this was honest music making: no stunts, no flights of individual virtuosity, no flummery. The execution by all three members was exemplary; my only quibble would be a stylistic one. I would have wished for a bit broader enunciation of the more romantic themes, for example the big cello solo in the Adagio. Having said that, I thoroughly enjoyed the confidently unostentatious playing of Mr. Hoffman. It may simply be a matter of taste: I still prefer that youthful original (and, I suspect, Brahms did too!).

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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