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Brahms: It's What's for Dinner

February 12, 2008

There's concert programming as science, programming as art — and programming as pure, primal indulgence. I'm as fond of cleverly constructed, balanced, everything-relates-subtly-to-everything-else program design as the next girl, but the idea of hearing all the Brahms piano trios in an evening affects me at a gut level the way the prospect of a hot fudge sundae for supper affects the average 8-year-old. What can I say, except "Thank you, San Francisco Performances"?
Tuesday night, pianist Nicholas Angelich and the violin-cello duo of Renaud and Gautier Capuçon performed the second installment of the presenter's Brahms trilogy, following the Emerson Quartet's traversal of the three string quartets last fall. (The three violin sonatas, with Anne-Sophie Mutter and Lambert Orkis, are still to come, and that's all for now. The folks at SFP had more sense than to try cramming the other Brahms chamber-music threesome — the piano quartets — into a single evening.)

Renaud and Gautier Capuçon

Angelich and the brothers Capuçon recorded the three works for EMI back in 2003. Four and half years on, that fine recording's open-hearted lyricism was matched and then surpassed on the Herbst Theatre stage.

When three players with solo careers in their own right form a semiregular piano trio, the ensemble is generally titled by linking the three names, but in what order? Is it piano-violin-cello (as in Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson, or Ashkenazy-Perlman-Harrell)? Does the biggest name lead (Stern-Istomin-Rose)? Do cute acronyms come into play (our own Fleezanis-Ohlsson-Grebanier ensemble, the FOG Trio)?

Tuesday's threesome has gone with Capuçon-Angelich, which most likely merely reflects the numerical preponderance of Capuçons. Still, the formidable sibling duo out front does seem to be the ensemble's dominant spirit.

Not that Angelich is anyone's idea of a shrinking violet. If he did seem a touch reserved in the Op. 87 C-Major Trio, his was a commanding presence in the thundering C-Minor Op. 101 that followed (and still more so in the B-Major Op. 8). The densest and weightiest of Brahms' piano writing fazed him not at all, but seemed to bring out his best. He was nimble, too, scurrying with alacrity through the filigree in the first two trios' Scherzos. The way he shaped the lazy triplet line in the recapitulation of the B-Major Trio's Adagio was a little miracle of hesitant grace.
Uncanny Instincts
All the same, it was the brothers Capuçon whose scarily unified playing occupied the foreground. They have powerful sounds, yet lean and concentrated ones, rather than bloated — all muscle, no fat. Both projected over Angelich's lid-full-up piano playing with what seemed insolent ease. (The brothers' new recording of the Brahms Double Concerto was released only a month or so ago, which you can listen to online. I hadn't heard it yet, but by the end of Tuesday's recital I might as well have.)

Allied to the power, or rather one major component of it, was the team's unanimity of tuning, ensemble, vibrato, musical instinct ... all. Sibling ensembles are always credited with uncanny mutual understanding, whether they actually have it or not, but these two seem to have it, and play like soprano and baritone editions of each other. The only slight difference of taste I could hear was that Gautier, the cellist, occasionally gushes with his vibrato at the top of a phrase for expressive emphasis, while Renaud doesn't. (That, though, is a device that few solo cellists can resist.) Otherwise the partnership was intimate and complete.

The three trios came in the most tractable order for performance, with Op. 87 first, the taut and stormy Op. 101 second, and the longest, Op. 8, after intermission to close. By a quirk of history this was also, in a sense, chronological order, because while Brahms wrote Op. 8 in 1853, he returned to it over three decades later and well-nigh rewrote it. It’s a bewildering experience to hear the original, which we can do these days (there are a few recordings, and even a spiffy modern edition).

Each movement starts out more or less as you remember it, but sooner or later — generally sooner — you think "Hey, wait a minute," and shortly after that you're utterly lost and confused. The Scherzo (mostly) apart, it's just a plain different work, but one built on the familiar themes. The difference in scale is substantial, as the revision is about 12 minutes shorter than the original.

Even thus compressed, the revised and greatly improved Op. 8 still reflects the lyrical largesse of early Brahms. Over its 35 minutes, it ceases singing only to take the occasional breath. But then all three trios are melodically generous in a way that, say, the string quartets aren't. Even the blustery Op. 101 contains a broad lyrical streak, though its mixed-meter Andante grazioso isn't the demonstratively affectionate type of Brahms slow movement.

Everywhere it was the music's lyrical generosity that the brothers Capuçon brought out to the full. The sort of Brahms that wraps itself around you and hugs you, they responded to in kind. The trio of Op. 87's Scherzo, for example — surely one of the most meltingly delicious things in all Brahms — was rich, warm, and utterly natural in its rubato.

The string lines throughout the recital soared in long arcs spiced, but seldom really interrupted, by incisive articulation. Even when playing off the string, the Capuçons favored broad, almost-connected strokes most of the time. (They had a brittle, vertical spiccato in their arsenal, too, but saved it for places like the shuddering repeated notes in Op. 87's Scherzo.) Line was all, and more than enough.

Michelle Dulak Thomson is a violinist and violist who has written about music for Strings, Stagebill, Early Music America, and The New York Times.