Brahms Zooms From a Livingroom

Lifetime Learning’s livestreamed concert of October 19th featured violinist pianist Daniel Kurganov and Constantine Finehouse with two of the three Brahms sonatas for that combination. Kurganov introduced the concert by revealing that he and Finehouse had just finished creating a CD of all the Brahms violin sonatas played on period instruments. In creating the CD, they used a Streicher piano from the Frederick Collection in Ashburnham that dated from Brahms’s time and a Guarneri violin Kurganov borrowed from Ruenig and Sons. Livestreaming the recital from his home, Constantine played his own piano, a contemporary instrument. But Kurganov played the Giuseppe Guarneri filius Andrea violin on loan from Ruenig. The two viewed this recital as the finale to their Brahms piano and violin sonata undertaking.

They opened with Sonata No. 1, op 78 in G Major, known as Regensonate because the main theme of the third movement is a direct quote from “Regenlied” one of Brahms’s art songs. Brahms places a long-short-long rhythmic pattern into the melody which we recognized in the very first bars. There the three-note rhythmic pattern introduces a tuneful song. The mood of innocence and sweet rapture obtains throughout, although the thematic material becomes more assertive as the piece progresses. The listener is brought home about 1/3 of the way through the piece with a grounded chorale of straightforward beauty. The journey across a range of emotions continues; forcefulness and anxiety make appearances in the development section where a two-note motif evolves from the original three note motif. And just as the listener thinks the movement will end in a quiet fade, the two-note motif spans its largest intervals and the door is opened to a dramatic and forceful conclusion. Kurganov and Finehouse highlighted the many outstanding features of the music were highlighted with verve and spontaneity, conveying Brahms’s perfect balance among the instruments’ imitative, accompanimental and/or intertwined modes.

The Adagio middle movement features a flowing melody, with the long-short (or long-short-long depending on one’s read of the thematic material) reference never far off. The sections of lyrical song are interrupted by hushed chords in the right hand (see long short long) that evoke a funeral march. More than in the other two movements, the violin generally held the principal or melodic part, while the piano provided accompaniment. The third movement’s opening theme quotes directly from “Regenlied,” evoking the melancholic pitter patter of rain from the original song. Here the relationship between violin and piano looks back to the first movement, with lively interplay of thematic material. The musical role of the ever-present pitter patter changes throughout. Brahms eventually returns ever more strongly to the beginning of the sonata and reinforces the cyclical interconnectedness by ending the piece in G major, its opening key. Dramatic, hushed or peaceful, Kurganov and Finehouse, conveyed it all.

Finehouse and Kurganov

Brahms’s four-movement Sonata No. 3 op. 108 is generally thought to be more concise, more mature than his op 78. Kurganov pointed out, though, that op. 108 opens in what appears to be the middle of a phrase, as if the audience came in three or four measures after the piece begins. The syncopated piano part contributes to a slightly unbalanced feel. Though a long way from the straightforward beauty of op 78, op. 108 possesses much in common with the earlier number. The second movement, an Adagio, wraps the listener in warmth and nostalgia. The drama is in the violin part, with the piano providing the accompaniment. The terse third movement clearly alludes to a Beethoven scherzo. Yet its tenderness recalls some of Brahms late works for piano. The fourth movement is the most virtuosic of all. The violin’s opening statement is rhapsodic and passionate. The instruments switch roles throughout. Syncopation in the accompaniment (be it violin or piano) contributes to the frenzied feel of the movement, though throughout, the composer also intersperses moments where the piano is given an elegant, stately theme. These moments provide respite from the generally agitated quality of the sonata. It ends with the first subject material restated thunderingly in D minor.

Lifetime Learning’s choice of Zoom for live-streaming music is not optimal for every taste. Many musical organizations hold events partially on Zoom, permitting the many-to many qualities of conversation for the personal interactions, but switches the actual concert to YouTube with optimal sound and image, and without distractions from other viewers.

Yesterday’s performers used an X-Y stereo microphone, one camera, and diffuse window light. The results were certainly good enough to allow me to discern the quality of playing. Kurganov came across as direct, and focused and at the same time, romantic. Finehouse controlled his powerful sound so that that the two complemented beautifully.

Zoom offers participants the vibe of a small house performance in the company of others, in this case, approximately 33. Your writer enjoyed the ability to see fellow viewers’ faces, but can also sympathize with those who prefer YouTube’s total focus on the performers.

But, electronics be damned! I impatiently await the glory of intimate, in-person recitals.

Retired medical biology researcher Dinah Bodkin is a serious amateur pianist and mother of Groupmuse founder Sam Bodkin.