Great Brahms, Played Superbly

 United StatesUnited States  Kodály, Brahms, and Prokofiev: Jessica Lee and Arnaud Sussmann (violins); Emily Deans and Alan Iglitzin (violas); David Requiro (cello); Julio Elizalde (piano); Olympic Music Festival, Quilcene, WA, 27.8.2010 (BJ)

Johannes Brahms and the Olympic Musical Festival were on excellent terms with each other at the festival’s penultimate weekend. The composer clearly loved the cello best among the string instruments – and wonderful cello playing has been a highlight of this season’s performances.

The young musicians concerned have included Clancy Newman, classically focused in technique and style, and Amy Barston, her tone even warmer and more opulent than in previous years. This time it was David Requiro; and much as I enjoyed his playing a week earlier in Ravel and Shostakovich, it was his response to Brahms that bowled me over on 27 August. The C-minor Piano Quartet, greatest of the composer’s three essays in the genre, and the second of his two string quintets, in G major, offer a cellist a wealth of opportunities for glory and challenges to surmount – and Requiro gloried and triumphed every time.

My emphasis here is perhaps unfair. Something that struck me forcibly during the first two movements of the piano quartet was that the performance being shaped – by pianist Julio Elizalde, violinist Arnaud Sussmann, violist Emily Deans, and Requiro – was so passionately committed, and so powerfully integrated, that there was no occasion to think about the qualities of any individual; this was a team achievement in the finest sense. But then came the slow movement, where Requiro’s burnished sound and spellbinding phrasing of one of the most gorgeous melodies the composer ever wrote inevitably took the limelight.

At the start of the quintet, the task of projecting the cello’s theme under the tumultuous figurations of the other four instruments is formidable, and we know that the Rosé Quartet cellist Reinhold Hummer, though noted for the power of his tone, despaired of making the first theme audible at the work’s premiere. Yet here too Requiro was at once authoritative and eloquent–though it should be acknowledged that clarity depends at this point also on the good judgement of the other players in shading their volume down to the indicated “forte” level.

In this work, Festival director Alan Iglitzin had his own moments of glory, phrasing the tranquilly expressive second theme of the opening movement with compelling warmth, and Jessica Lee played the first violin part superbly. The deep feeling all four players brought to the slow movement caused me to reflect for the first time that Brahms must have been acquainted, when he wrote it in 1890, with his protégé Dvorák’s compositions in the dumka style – there was surely something dumka-esque about the way the movement, in this performance, suddenly dashed away in vehement figurations before returning to its prevailing manner of intense lament. And the finale was tossed off with exactly the lightheartedness it demands: what a piece for a composer to think he is ending his career with! – all eupeptic high spirits, without a trace of nostalgia or self-dramatization.

Lee, with Sussmann and Deans, had opened the afternoon with a brilliantly gutsy performance of Kodály’s richly and folksily romantic Serenade for two violins and viola, and Sussmann and Elizalde were equally impressive after intermission in Prokofiev’s fluent if rather inconsequential Five Melodies for violin and piano. But it was the Brahms that took possession of at least this listener’s mind and heart, and the performances of his two works were among most memorable achievements of an already memorable season. Though rumors of the festival’s financial problems are disturbing, the final weekend’s program, on 3 and 4 September, should dispel any gloom, with two-piano music including Mozart’s D-major Sonata, Ravel’s La Valse, and works by Schubert and Stravinsky to be played by Julio Elizalde and Di Wu.

Bernard Jacobson

A shorter version of this review appeared in the Seattle Times.