The last composer on earth to inspire an irrational frenzy in audiences is probably Johannes Brahms--a careful, solid workman, always conscious of posterity looking over his shoulder and the spirit of Beethoven hovering in the background, who destroyed any work that did not meet the highest standards of both musicianship and decorum.
You will never catch old Johannes in a moment of youthful indiscretion, as you can Mozart or Beethoven; never hear from him anything vulgar or embarrassing as you can from Liszt or Schumann; never observe him going overboard and losing control.
This gives a Brahms festival, like the one taking place at the Wolf Trap Barns this week, a special, familiar flavor. There are no real surprises; there can be none, until some lucky musicologist comes up with a batch of manuscripts saved from the fire by a music-loving chambermaid.
There are not really any unjustly neglected works waiting to be brought to light. It is all available and has been steadily since its publication--solid as a rock, guaranteed of good workmanship because its maker was his own severest critic.
Some pieces, like the Horn Trio, Op. 40, are not performed very often because the necessary instruments seldom are available, but even this delicious, relatively rarely heard work will be getting extra exposure this season, because this year is the 150th anniversary of the composer's birth. On Friday night, at the Barns, the Horn Trio will have its second performance in Washington in less than a week.
Last night's program at the Barns, performed by violinist James Buswell and pianist James Tocco, was devoted entirely to the Brahms violin sonatas--three masterpieces that are often heard singly on programs with material by other composers, but almost never all together. There is great variety within any one of these sonatas, swinging from muted lyricism to gentle melancholy to subdued passion, and each of the sonatas has a character distinctively its own. The program was artfully arranged, with the most fiery, dramatic work of the three, the Sonata in D Minor, flanked by the more lyrical works in A and G. The performance, like the music, was beautifully polished, with the material always completely under control.
Hearing them one after another enhanced one's admiration for the composer, but by the end of the evening it seemed a bit of a muchness. Perhaps there is a limit to one's capacity for concentrated doses even of music as exquisite as the violin sonatas of Brahms. The remaining programs in the festival, offering more diversity of forms, should be free of this problem.
Buswell and Tocco played like the fine soloists and chamber musicians they are, though there is a level of intuitive communication that they will not reach until they have played together many more times.