I have long maintained that, when it comes to classical music, performance is everything, but I never expected Richard Strauss to trump Brahms because of it.
That’s what happened at the Upbeat! concert of the Bowdoin International Music Festival, Wednesday night at Studzinski Hall.
One always has great expectations for the combination of violin and cello in the Brahms Piano Trio No. 2 in C Major, Op. 87. It offers almost the entire range of the string section (except for the double-bass), plus massive support from the piano, where Brahms is at his best.
Unfortunately, one is almost always disappointed, as with the so-called “double concerto,” – for violin, cello and orchestra – to be performed at the festival on Aug. 8.
The trio has lovely melodies, inventive development, and the best Brahmsian sonorities, but on Wednesday night, the trio of Olga Dubrossarskaya Kaler, violin, Rosemary Elliot, cello, and Emma Tahmizian, piano, couldn’t quite pull it together. Maybe it was the kid sitting next to me, playing with his cellphone.
The Strauss Violin Sonata in E-flat Major, Op. 18, is certainly inferior musically to the Brahms, but it succeeded brilliantly, generating, from an overflow audience, the largest number of cheering curtain calls that I can remember.
The difference was in the presentation by Ilya Kaler, violin, and Boris Slutsky, piano, who turned Strauss’s youthful display piece into a moving work of art. As someone remarked about Michelangeli’s reading of the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 4: “He made it sound better than it is.”
The sonata is full of fireworks, but what is most enjoyable is its hints at later Strauss operas, most notably “Der Rosenkavalier,” and the mercurial appearance of the violin as various operatic characters.
The program began with a fine and enthusiastic U.S. premiere of Sebastian Currier’s “Links,” by violinist Momo Wong. Composed in 2001, it was premiered in the U.K. last year. The work is a set of often ingenious variations on a theme, with their order chosen by the soloist, like a jeweler assembling the links of a chain. Wong’s selections emphasized contrasts, in dynamics, violin technique and harmony versus dissonance.
The composer was in the audience, which gave the work, the first on the program, an enthusiastic reception.
Christopher Hyde’s Classical Beat column appears in the Maine Sunday Telegram. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.