Review: Chamber Music Society

Roman Rabinovich, piano
Diana Cohen, violin
Jason Amos, viola
James Wilson, cello
March 3, Perkinson Recital Hall, University of Richmond

Johannes Brahms was a pianist, and rarely a reticent one, to judge by his music for the instrument – especially the chamber music for piano and strings. Playing the piano’s prominent role in this music without overbalancing, not to say bowling over, strings requires keen ears and careful gradations of volume and sonority.

In Brahms’ piano quartets in G minor, Op. 25, and C minor, Op. 60, the pianist takes on another responsibility: Sustaining the music’s pace and pulse. Both works boast a wealth of lush, at times swooning, melodies, tempting string players to wallow in high-romantic lyricism. Doing so robs the music of momentum, and can even turn certain movements into a succession of episodes.

In an all-Brahms program staged by the Chamber Music Society of Central Virginia, pianist Roman Rabinovich knew when to let his three string-playing colleagues sing, and when to prompt them to dance, march and gallop. He showed an unerring sense of tempo early on, in the opening allegro non troppo of Op. 60, which in too many performances tends to lumber, and great sensitivity for balances between piano and strings throughout both quartets.

Rabinovich also favored sharp, hair-trigger accents and finely spun melodic lines, characteristics that were echoed in the playing of violinist Diana Cohen, violist Jason Amos and cellist James Wilson. All three brought almost pointillistic detail and songfulness without excess to their parts. This was typified by the cello introduction to the andante of Op. 60 by Wilson (who is artistic director of the society), and the exchanges among the three later in the movement.

The ensemble’s treatment of Op. 25, the best-known of Brahms’ three piano quartets, played up the work’s rhetorical flourishes – notably the march-like anthem tune in the middle of the andante – and explored this music’s varied shades of tone color, especially in darker timbres.

The closing “Rondo alla Zingarese” of Op. 25, Brahms’ most vivid evocation of “gypsy” song and dance, rollicked and surged memorably in this performance. The group adopted an unusually speedy tempo, and the string players articulated their parts with the abandon – and some of the rawness – of folk fiddlers. Untidy as it was at times, it was nonetheless thrilling music-making.

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