Brahms program warms up January at Winter Chamber Music Festival

Mon Jan 09, 2023 at 12:44 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Adam Nieman and CSO members performed Brahms ‘ Piano Quintet at the Winter Chamber Music Festival Sunday in Evanston. Photo: L. Johnson.

There is not too much inviting about January in Chicago. But one cultural benefit of the start of a new annum is the return of the Winter Chamber Music Festival to Northwestern University.

2023 marks the 26th season of this venerable series founded by violinist Blair Milton, a longtime Chicago Symphony Orchestra member. This year’s installment offers a bevy of top chamber groups performing weekends through January 22.

Before departing on a North American tour later this month, four CSO members joined pianist Adam Neiman for an all-Brahms concert at the festival Sunday at Pick-Staiger Concert Hall in Evanston.

Brahms wrote a remarkable array of chamber music from cello and clarinet sonatas to string sextets. Sunday’s lineup offered a progressive feast of sorts, moving from a duo sonata to one of the composer’s largest chamber works.

Brahms’ Violin Sonata No. 2 in A major opened the program. A late work, the composer’s Op. 100 was written during a working vacation at Thun. The sonata draws on three songs Brahms penned for the soprano Hermine Spies, who may have joined him that summer.

CSO associate concertmaster Stephanie Jeong and Nieman proved simpatico partners and fully idiomatic Brahmsians, and their sterling performance provided the highlight of the afternoon.

The players fluently balanced the gentle contrasts, reflective and assertive qualities assayed with a natural rubato, and nicely conveyed the grazioso character of the finale. Playing with pure tone and sensitivity, Jeong was especially inspired at drawing out the shade of melancholy in Brahms’ wistful lyricism.

Violinist Simon Michal and cellist Kenneth Olsen joined Nieman for the Trio No. 2 in C major. Nieman was as adept as previously but the CSO members seemed less in synch with Brahms’ idiom. In the first movement, their playing was not as incisive as Nieman’s, and while typically polished, a kind of bland efficiency prevailed.

There were worthy moments, with some belated fire in the coda of the opening movement. Yet too many key moments went by with little impact, the string players making little of the soaring middle section of the Scherzo. And while the finale was spirited enough, the playing felt more grimly determined than buoyant; only Nieman conveyed the giocoso quality Brahms asks for.

Violist Weijing Michal (wife of the violinist) joined Nieman and her three CSO colleagues for the Piano Quintet in F minor after intermission.

In his early works, Brahms often wrestled with form and structure, and his Op. 34 is no exception. He first cast it as a string quintet, and then a sonata for two pianos before—at Clara Schumann’s urging—retooling it yet again for its eventual final form.

The Piano Quintet is a large and multifaceted work, spanning nearly 45 minutes and four movements. The two large framing movements could have used more bristling intensity and the Andante—while sensitively played— felt rather literal, missing an essential rapt inwardness. At times one felt Nieman was scaling down his powerful keyboard playing so as not to overwhelm the lightish corporate string sonority.

While not all of the quintet’s opportunities were mined, with Jeong in the first violin chair, this was still a committed, largely successful performance. The march-like middle section of the Scherzo went with ample swagger and the finale’s slow introduction unfolded with a sense of mysterious anticipation. If the playing felt cautious at times, the blast of velocity at the coda closed the performance in rousing style.

The Winter Chamber Music Festival continues with the Isidore String Quartet performing music of Haydn, Beethoven, and Billy Childs 7:30 p.m. Friday.

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Brahms program warms up January at Winter Chamber Music Festival”

  1. Posted Jan 09, 2023 at 11:17 pm by ChiLynne

    The quintet was gorgeous – stunned that anyone would react otherwise. Your loss!

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