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Brahms: Seattle Chamber Music Society artists: Alon Goldstein (piano), Ilya Kaler (violin), Amit Peled (cello), Illsley Ball Nordstrom Recital Hall, Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 28.1.2011 (BJ)

It behooves the critic, in reviewing musicians who have suffered from serious travel problems, to bring to bear every ounce of kindness he can muster. The Seattle Chamber Music Society’s “Celebration of the Music of Johannes Brahms” promised a dream program: a short pre-concert piano recital, presenting the Scherzo, Op. 4, and the three Intermezzi, Op. 117, and then all three of the composer’s trios for piano, violin, and cello, sensibly performed in reverse chronological order (except insofar as the B-major Trio, Op. 8, can actually be regarded as both the first and the last of the three, since it was revised after the composition of Opus 101). And since I understand the performers barely managed to get out of snowbound Boston and reach Seattle on the actual day of the concert, I sympathize, I really do.

Yet, with all due allowance made—for traumatic travel is not conducive to a sense of repose, or mellowness, or Viennese Gemütlichkeit—the best I can say for the trio performances is that they were the kind of music-making I adored when I was about 15, and my highest term of approbation for a performance would probably have been “exciting.” But that adolescent conception of excitement was superficial and one-dimensional, grounded merely in kinetic energy, and an increasing perception of delicacy, grace, and subtlety gradually came to establish a deeper level of appreciation.

There was indeed plenty of kinetic energy in these performances. But when every moment of an artfully designed piece is exciting, reinforced by dynamics that hardly ever encompass a true pianissimo, the inevitable result is that excitement itself evaporates—for truly satisfying thrills depend on contrast.

The point about dynamics is crucial. Opening the trio program, the first theme of the C-minor work is marked just “forte,” but it was launched with an overwhelming force that left one wondering where on earth the players could go when they met a “fortissimo” marking. The beginning of the C-major Trio, again, is even more modest in its indication—“poco f” (“slightly loud,” or “a bit loud”)—and it too drew an altogether excessive response in the execution. At the other end of the dynamic gamut, you would never have guessed that most of the same trio’s scherzo, like much of the one in the B-major Trio, is marked to be played pp and even ppp.

Much of this overdrawn dynamic effect may very possibly, as I have suggested, be blamed on the stress engendered by travel problems. One year ago to the day, the same three players collaborated in a Schumann trio performance that was as satisfying emotionally as it was accomplished in technique. This time around, Alon Goldstein’s introductory talk was characteristically full of charm, and a dashing reading of the Scherzo showed his ability to produce grand sonorities that are refreshingly free of harshness, though his softer lines in the Intermezzi never really sang. Amit Peled’s cello tone again impressed with its richness and warmth. It seemed to me that much of violinist Ilya Kaler’s playing, dominant yet somewhat acidic in tone, would have been better suited to the aggressive aesthetic of a composer like, say, the early Penderecki than to the civilized polish of Brahms; but in the first-movement recapitulation of the B-major Trio some phrases of surpassing sweetness reminded me that he too is capable of high musical achievement.

Forgivable, however, as many of the above shortcomings may be, the performers’ disregard of Brahms’s call for an exposition repeat in that same movement struck me as a culpably bad decision. I know that Brahms said some surprisingly permissive things about the observation or otherwise of his repeat markings in other works. But when a composer in his late maturity returns to an early work, trims the first movement of just over two-fifths of its length in an evident quest for a more compact form, and still retains the repeat, he is surely telling us—and his interpreters—that its inclusion is essential. Leaving it out damages the proportions of the movement: especially since the return of the main theme in the recapitulation is much more forceful and radically abbreviated, the omission fatally impairs the balance between the leisured serenity of the opening and the assertiveness of much that follows.

I should, as a matter of critical responsibility, report that the audience’s rapturous standing ovation clearly showed me to be in a minority in my views about this concert. Having admired these performers greatly in the past, I can only say that I hope we will be more on the same wavelength in the future.

Bernard Jacobson

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