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Getting Together With Brahms

01.14.09
Gil Shaham
The New York Times

The violinist Gil Shaham has assembled a group of friends, including family members, for a compact, three-concert survey of Brahms chamber works at Zankel Hall. Or mostly Brahms. The first installment, on Tuesday evening, offered the only music in the series by composers other than Brahms. As a curtain raiser Mr. Shaham and his sister, the pianist Orli Shaham, played the "F-A-E" Sonata, an 1853 collaboration to which Brahms and Albert Dietrich each contributed a movement, and Schumann provided two. The plan was that each composer would use the notes F, A and E (which stand for "frei aber einsam," or "free but alone," a motto adopted by the violinist Joseph Joachim, for whom the work was written) as a theme.

The decision to play Brahms's scherzo movement in context rather than on its own, as is often done, seemed an act of generosity, given that Schumann and Dietrich are interlopers here.

Or maybe not. Dietrich's opening movement is comfortable and entertaining, and Schumann's second and fourth movements temper drama with lyricism. But the Allegro that Brahms supplied as the third movement has a power and vitality that the others don't match. That was particularly so in the unusually brisk account it received here. It would have made a superb finale; Schumann's last word is anticlimactic.

That said, playing only the Brahms would have killed a unifying element of the program. The remaining works - Brahms's Piano Sonata in F minor and String Quartet in A minor - each use the F-A-E figure in at least one movement. That makes it a sweep, but only if you include the Dietrich and Schumann movements of the "F-A-E" Sonata. Brahms, inexplicably, opted against using the theme in his contribution.

Ms. Shaham offered a daringly forceful interpretation of the F minor Sonata. Where the music so much as hinted that power would be welcome, Ms. Shaham supplied it amply, with sharply articulated phrasing as a bonus. She was nearly as convincing in the work's more delicate, introspective passages, and occasionally she brought a majestic undercurrent as well. But she was at her best when Brahms turned up the heat, and as big as her sound was in the scherzo and the finale, Ms. Shaham kept it trim and fully focused.

In the quartet Mr. Shaham was joined by the violinist Adele Anthony (his wife, to whom he gallantly ceded the first violin chair), the violist Cynthia Phelps and the cellist Brinton Averil Smith. Over all this ensemble produced a beautifully balanced, warm tone, and except for a squarish Andante moderato it gave the work a bright, lively performance rich in Romantic steaminess but never overplayed.