Brahms Classical and Romantic: Ian Hobson and colleagues traverse Brahms’ music for piano solo and chamber music with piano at the DiMenna Center

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Ian Hobson

Ian Hobson

For a complete listing of the series, click here.

One of the most significant musical events of the autumn was a concert series of a scope and ambition rarely found anywhere, even in New York. The highly respected pianist-conductor Ian Hobson, who was born in England and educated at Cambridge University, the Royal College of Music, and Yale, and has been a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne since 1975, devoted his regular concert cycle to Brahms’ music for solo piano and chamber works for piano, strings, and winds. This took the form of fourteen concerts, all listed above, which spanned September, October, and the first half of November. He called on eleven colleagues, pupils, and friends, including his wife Claude Edrei Hobson, to explore the chamber repertory comprehensively, so that the clarinet sonatas were heard both in their original versions and in their transcriptions for viola. Some of the violin sonatas were also in viola arrangements, thanks to the efforts of participant Csaba Erdélyi. An 87-page program was published for the series which not only included a valuable chronology of the works, but an essay and program notes by no less than Paul Griffiths, a resource anyone who cares about Brahms will certainly want to keep and consult often.

Two years ago Tanglewood did a fine service to its audiences by arranging for Gerhard Oppitz to play a survey of Brahms’ music for solo piano. Larry Wallach, who covered the series for the Berkshire Review of the Arts in two parts (I and II), felt that Oppitz had such a deep command of the works that he almost seemed to be tapping the composer himself directly. These were indeed persuasive and powerful readings, but there are other possibilities. Paul Griffiths devotes much of his introduction to the difference between the public and the private Brahms. As his career developed and piano technology evolved toward the metal-frame instruments commonly used today, Brahms adopted the modern Bösendorfer of his day on occasion, but he later preferred the mostly wooden pianos of another Viennese maker, Johann Baptist Streicher, while he continued to use Steinways and Bechsteins in concert, which were built on metal frames. Oppitz’s grand style clearly reflected Brahms’ public mode, raising prodigious masses of sound in Seiji Ozawa Hall, which were not always free from harshness. Griffiths in fact quotes an 1862 review by Eduard Hanslick of public performances which said, “His playing resembles the austere Cordelia, who concealed her feelings rather than betray them to the people. The forceful and the distorted are simply impossible in Brahms’ playing. Its judicious softness is, indeed, such that he seems reluctant to draw a full tone from the piano.” This was clearly the model Ian Hobson chose to follow, and in practice the music never failed to fascinate, and to bring the listener into contact with Brahms’s personal voice. In all the concerts I attended, the composer seemed to be in the room with us.

I only regret that I could not attend them all. The possibilities open to me during the series were largely weighted toward chamber music. My own path began with the Violin Sonata in G Major Op. 78 and ended with the same sonata transposed down for viola—a balanced, if fragmentary experience of Hobson’s plan. My first impression of the violinist Andrés Cárdenes’ playing defines the spirit of the entire cycle. (Born in Cuba, Mr. Cárdenes was Concertmaster of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra between 1989 and 2010 and is now Chair of the Department of Music at Carnegie-Mellon University. He now concentrates on his solo work, chamber music, and conducting.) His sound is rich and warm, but it was more his restraint which impressed me in his playing with Hobson. Even some of the greatest violinists bring in Romantic mannerisms from the grand concerto style when playing these intimate works. There a temptation to shape the melodies into high-flying arcs, leading to a sweeping closing phrase, as if they were playing the Tchaikovsky concerto and not even Brahms’s own. Cárdenes, while maintaining a fine sense of the long line, paid attention to the shorter phrases from which Brahms built up the larger units, used them to converse with Mr. Hobson, and played in an almost parlando manner, which avoided pretentious gesturing in favor of a sensitive and logical rhetoric and dialogue with the piano. One can only have the greatest admiration for his restraint and good taste. It was this sort of playing which made me feel I was hearing Brahms’s own voice. And since they were listening to what Brahms actually said, one could only find oneself rapt in the argument and true expressiveness of the music from beginning to end.

Brahms’s great Horn Trio followed, with the addition of Bernhard Scully, Assistant Professor of Horn Studies at Urbana-Champaign and Principal Horn with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, also a member of Canadian Brass. This performance, in sympathy with what we had just heard, focused on the interplay of the instruments and their blend. Mr. Scully’s asserted itself above the ensemble only when it was really called for. It is all the more in the musicians’ favor that they were able to achieve this blended sound in Benzaquen Hall at the DiMenna Center for Classical Music, where the acoustics are not the best. Benzaquen’s breadth is greater than its depth in the manner of a rehearsal space or recording studio. There is some bloom in it, but the balance is uneven, and the sound varies considerably, depending on where one is sitting. We were pretty close in this concert, only three or four rows back. I spoke to one friend who had moved from a similar seat to the first row, where he said it sounded much better. The acoustics are least flattering to the piano, which was partially closed for the chamber music and may not have been one of Steinway’s better efforts for that matter. Ian Hobson made it work, however, and although we might not have been able to appreciate his every tonal nuance, it was easy enough to recognize in his playing the thoughtful and sensitive musician he is, and the musicians as a group succeeding splendidly in realizing the textures and balances of this unusual and challenging combination of instruments. Closing the program, Cárdenes and Hobson brought their sensitive interplay and unique understanding of Brahms’s musical language to his great Violin Sonata in D minor, Op. 108, which Brahms composed over two  summers, beginning in 1886 and first performed in Budapest by Jenö Hubay and with the composer at the piano. His old friend Joachim took over two months later for the Vienna premiere two months later. Darker in mood than the early sonata and intensely passionate, Op. 108 covers a wide field of harmony and emotion. The players’ restraint and good taste allowed Brahms’ richest invention to come through to us as the composer conceived and felt it.

The next program I could get to brought together the piano quartets Nos. 2 in A Major and 3 in C Minor, introduced by the scherzo from the early F-A-E Sonata for violin and piano. Robert Schumann organized this work in 1853 as a tribute to Joseph Joachim, assigning the first movement to his pupil Albert Dietrich, and the scherzo to Brahms, whilst taking on the slow movement and finale himself. Andrès Cárdenes and Ian Hobson dispatched with refined detail as well as the appropriate youthful energy.

In the quartets they were joined by two equally impressive musicians with whom they have played for many years, Csaba Erdélyi, viola, and Ko Iwasaki, cello. Erdélyi is the first and only violist to win the Flesch Prize, after which he was invited by Joseph Szigeti and Rudolf Serkin to join them at Marlboro. Once the principal violist of the Philharmonia Orchestra, he remains as active in London and in the United States, where he plays in chamber orchestras in Indianapolis and Urbana-Champaign. Ko Iwasaki left his native Japan to study with Leonard Rose at Juilliard and with Pablo Casals in Puerto Rico. These two gentlemen brought strong musical personalities of their own into the mix. Iwasaki is passionate in expression and produces a dark tone from his instrument as well as pungent attacks. Erdélyi is a musician of consummate subtlety and variety in his expression, as well as a charming Hungarian courtliness. Like Cárdenes he has developed a supreme understanding of Brahms’ phrasing, logic, and rhetoric and exercises a great range of expression and color as he proceeds from phrase to phrase in Brahms’ grand structures. Along with a distinctly Hungarian character, the aristocratic nature of his playing immediately impresses the listener.

As powerful as was their performance of the stark C Minor, I was most deeply moved by the gentler, more lyrical and nostalgic A Major of 1861. One of the most perfect works by the most perfectionistic of composers, every movement of the the A Major (Op. 26) is ambitious both in grandeur of scope, workmanship, and emotional range. Long a desert-island work for me, it hasn’t come my way in quite a while. This particular combination of personalities and colors was in itself something one would want to keep for one’s desert island. I found myself transfixed by the direct, intimate exposure to Brahms’ own expression, as I followed their exposition line by line, bar by bar. And in truth the C Minor (Op. 60) was no less powerful. He actually began it several years before the A Major, while he was at work on his First Symphony, and this shows in his grand, severe opening movement. When his work on the quartet became bogged down in problems, rather than destroy what he had written, he put it aside and returned to it almost twenty years later, when he was able to find the solutions he needed and reconcile his early and mature styles.

Now that I’ve made it clear that the concert was indeed an enjoyable and moving experience, I can say that the concentration the players were able to command, at least from this listener, distracted him from the appalling shortcomings of Cary Hall at the DiMenna Center. A small, almost square, room which seats about 80 to 100 people, it is stuffy, claustrophobic and virtually anechoic. While the balance of sound is even enough, the musicians deserve heroic respect for creating some ensemble blend in the space. If you ask why the organizers would present such a series at such a remote, unattractive, and unmusical venue, let it be said that the series was originally booked at another, far more suitable hall—which sadly is no longer in operation.

Thursday, November 7, Andrew Miller attended Ian Hobson’s solo piano recital in Benzaquen Hall, which paired the late Fantasias, Op. 116, with Brahms’ early masterpiece, the Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, Op. 24, and returned glowing with enthusiasm. My last concert was on the following Tuesday, November 12, which included the First Sonata for Viola in F Minor, Op. 120, the Klavierstücke Op. 118, and Csaba Erdélyi’s aforementioned arrangement for viola in D Major of the Violin Sonata in G Major, Op. 78. I was grateful to hear more of this treasurable musician’s playing, which, in its immediacy and liveliness brought back memories of the old Marlboro, tempered by natural control and focused dynamics and phrasing. The golden sound Erdélyi produces from his instrument would delight any lover of the viola. His musicianship is a perfect balance charm, old-world naturalness and expression, discipline, and a deep, but unpretentious respect for the composer whose music he is playing. Respect, modesty, and intelligence also ruled Ian Hobson’s playing of Op. 118. The voices were nicely balanced between the melodic line and the equally important accompaniment. One’s only regret could be that the piano and the hall did not do him any favors. Erdélyi’s performance was not the only instance of a revelation coming from a different performance of a different arrangement of a piece. Both Mr. Cárdenes and Mr. Erdélyi played with warmth, intelligence, sophistication, and respect, but of different kinds.

I finish this review, begun some time ago, after the first evening of another Brahms series, this one a series of three concerts organized by Emanuel Ax, similarly bringing together vocal and chamber music around a pianistic core. There is no end to our perspectives on the greatest composer of the latter nineteenth century.

Johannes Brahms sitting at the piano in the music room of his friends, Richard and Maria Fellinger

Johannes Brahms sitting at the piano in the music room of his friends, Richard and Maria Fellinger

About the author

Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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