An afternoon with Brahms, done with insight and style

By Lawrence A. Johnson

While most casual concertgoers know Johannes Brahms’ concertos or symphonies, it is in his chamber and instrumental music that Brahms reveals himself most intimately. Written over a decade, Brahms’ violin sonatas present different sides of the German composer’s art, much as walking around a sculpture reveals different angles and perspectives.

Violinist Stefan Jackiw, 23, offered a quick immersion into Brahms with all three of the composer’s violin sonatas at Gusman Concert Hall for Sunday Afternoons of Music.  Brilliantly laid out, with equal challenges for both players, the sonatas are varied but deceptively tricky to interpret, with the music alternating autumnal melancholy with bursts of aggressive energy.

Jackiw possesses a slender, silvery tone well suited to Brahms’ intimate lyricism and his  pianist, Max Levinson, proved an equally idiomatic partner. The opening movement of the Sonata No. 1 in G major was wholly sympathetic, the refined sweetness of Jackiw’s violin conveying the music’s relaxed reflection. In the ensuing Adagio, the young violinist and his partner balanced the stark introspection and  more adamant middle section, the coda rendered by Jackiw with a barely audible thread of tone.

Written seven years later, the Sonata No. 2 in A major inhabits a similar expressive world, with the searching quality of the opening Allegro amabile and the more aggressive contrasts of the second movement put across with gleaming tone and hair-trigger teamwork. The concluding Allegretto grazioso was especially well done, with the rhapsodic ebb and flow handled skillfully by both men, some disarray at the coda apart.

Jackiw and Levinson clearly view Brahms’ Sonata No. 3 in D minor as a more dramatic work and tackled it accordingly.  Jackiw here played with a more robust tone, suited to the  aggressive drive of the outer movements. The indelible Adagio was beautifully done with a confiding tenderness by Jackiw. The duo handled the light caprice of the scherzo and the bristling, agitated finale with extraordinary intensity, rounding off a terrific afternoon of music as enjoyable as it was illuminating.

NOTE: Doreen Marx, executive director and guiding light of Sunday Afternoons of Music was ill with bronchitis Sunday, and so, for the first time in 28 years, failed to make her inimitable pre-concert introduction. Best wishes to Doreen for a quick recovery.

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Mon Mar 23, 2009
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