Music review: Kennedy Center Chamber Players double down on Brahms

April 11, 2011

Is the first piano trio of Johannes Brahms good enough to warrant playing it twice in the same concert? The Kennedy Center Chamber Players attempted to show that it was during their Sunday afternoon concert at the Terrace Theater.

The group juxtaposed the two surviving versions of the Op. 8 trio, the first published when Brahms was in his early 20s and the second made in the final decade of his life.

This is a rare situation for a composer who had infamously exacting standards for what he allowed the public to hear. The early version contains many melodic references to Brahms’s love for Clara Schumann. At the time, he was helping her deal with her husband’s mental breakdown, and Clara advised against publishing it. When he revised the trio, Brahms soft-pedaled some of those references but created a more concise and better work.

To mark the passage of time, the group played the early version on a piano and instruments with gut strings. Violinist Nurit Bar-Josef and cellist David Hardy seemed a little uncomfortable on these instruments, leading to some inconsistencies of tone and intonation. The performance of the revised version on modern instruments was more confident and demonstrated that Schumann was right about the early version. In the superior revision, Brahms made the string parts more independent of one another and excised the pedestrian second theme and pretentious fugal coda of the first movement.

Separating the two versions was the pair of Op. 91 songs for mezzo-soprano, viola and piano. Cynthia Hanna sang with volcanic fierceness of tone, perhaps too much for the lullaby of the second piece, with violist Daniel Foster giving a gentle quotation of the Christmas carol “Joseph, Lieber Joseph Mein.”

Downey is a freelance writer.

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