Last night's concert in the Library of Congress' celebration of the 150th anniversary of Brahms' birth brought splendid performances of the composer at his most powerful, in the F-Minor Piano Quintet, and at his most refined, in 12 of his songs.
The Quintet was played by the still young Concord String Quartet along with the German Brahms specialist, pianist Detlef Kraus. What the performance lacked in tonal sheen and tenderness of nuance it made up for in its almost crushing intensity. The effects were broad--the grave opening, for instance, deliberate in the extreme, but with such concentration that it came off convincingly. And the weighty sonorities and rhythms of the finale built up a tremendous head of steam.
The refinement in the songs came from famed soprano Elly Ameling and the splendid Dalton Baldwin at the piano. Ameling is a singer given to understatement and subtlety. The more sophisticated the song, the grander her art seems to be.
Last night's finest moment came in "Unbewegt, laue Luft" ("Mild, Unagitated Air"), a mini-tone poem with a hauntingly still introduction, followed by a description of a surging fountain that then becomes an analogy for the subject's flaming desire. The concentration and deftness of color that Ameling and Baldwin brought to this gem illustrated in just a few moments showed why they are preeminent in the world of lieder.
Finally, pianist Marilyn Neeley brought all the skill and art that could be asked to the garganutuan, sprawling F-sharp Minor Piano Sonata, a lengthy and undisciplined product of Brahms' teens. He was just getting to know the potential of the modern grand piano, and he couldn't resist going for broke with it endlessly. Neeley deserves a medal for performing it.