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Ferocious Lyricism

December 18, 2007

Brahms chamber music seems to be breaking out unnervingly in threes this season. First it was the three string quartets on a single program (the Emerson Quartet, in October). Coming up in February are the three piano trios (Nicholas Angelich and the brothers Capuçon, courtesy of San Francisco Performances). And Monday evening at the San Francisco Conservatory's Recital Hall, it was the three violin sonatas, with violinist Axel Strauss and pianist Paul Hersh — a program to be reprised in April (San Francisco Performances again) by Anne-Sophie Mutter and Lambert Orkis. Overkill?
Well, yes and no. Despite the undoubted tastiness factor in collecting so much Brahms in one place, the trios and the quartets don't really make satisfactory single-concert programs. As packages, they're too long (more than 90 minutes each) and too unrelievedly intense. It's not only the players who are going to be exhausted, mentally as well as physically, by the end. The sonatas, though, represent maybe 75 minutes' worth of music altogether (80 if you throw in the C-Minor Scherzo that Brahms wrote for a collaborative sonata dedicated to the violinist Joseph Joachim, the composer's only other original work for violin and piano).

Moreover, they're conveniently in a sensible performing order already — longest first, shortest and most dramatic last — and they're various and ingratiating enough not to wear out their welcome even when all in a row. Monday's recital, counting intermission, was an hour and 40 minutes of concentrated Brahmsian bliss.

I've said it more than once before, but it bears repeating until the larger Bay Area concertgoing public takes notice: Some of the best solo and chamber playing to be heard anywhere in this area is happening at the Conservatory. Strauss, in particular, seems to me the equal of any violinist we have around here.

On Monday, as ever, the chief glory was his clear, golden sound, airy and yet substantial, with a mobile, fastish vibrato that reminds me of Arthur Grumiaux or Christian Ferras. Given a long lyrical span over which to spread itself, like the first movement of the G-Major Sonata or the last of the A-Major, his lyricism is irresistible, effortless. Concentrated down, with a slower bow, as in the sonatas' three slow movements, it achieves richness and density that still seem utterly free of strain.

Where Brahms adopts his skittish scherzando mode, as in the third movement of the D-Minor Sonata or the fast bits of the central movement of the A-Major, Strauss' articulation is agile, varied, responsive. Where Brahms cuts loose, as in the last movement of the D-Minor or in the freestanding C-Minor Scherzo, he's ferocious.
Working Against the Music at Times
The one movement that, for me, didn't quite come off was the first of the D-Minor Sonata, where Strauss' taste for airy sound (and penchant for taking extra bowstrokes) worked against the fiercely contained intensity of the music. Here, in places, it really ought to sound as though you have to bow uncomfortably slowly. Never mind. Next up was the slow movement, capped with ringing, passionate thirds, and all was forgiven.

I wish I could have enjoyed Hersh's piano playing as much. At his best he was imposing — thundering through the C-Minor Scherzo, for example, or phrasing the second theme of the D-Minor Sonata's finale with grand, sonorous depth. Elsewhere, though, there was too much that was lumpy or uneven or clumsily voiced.

He frequently attempted a feather-light, markedly detached touch in the left hand. Sometimes (as in parts of the A-Major's and D-Minor's Scherzos, for example) it came off neatly. Sometimes (in the finale of the G-Major, in particular) it didn't; some notes "spoke" much more clearly than others, and the unevenness vitiated the effect. There were, too, passages of garden-variety technical struggle. Even so, I found much to admire, yet I couldn't help wondering what Strauss might have done in these quintessential duo-sonatas with a partner as agile and responsive as himself.

Having already used up his recital's most obvious encore (the C-Minor Scherzo, on the printed program at the end of the first half), Strauss escaped the stage after a fourth bow by dint of a winsome "Can't-I-go-home-now?" grin. The audience wanted more; me, too. Can we get this man a bigger hall and some publicity, please?

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