Yesterday afternoon’s recital in the Old First Concerts series at Old First Church featured a diverse repertoire of cello music featuring Sarah Hong as soloist. The major work on the program (and the only work following the intermission) was Johannes Brahms’ Opus 60 piano quartet in C minor (the last of the three pieces he wrote for this combination of instruments). Hong was joined by pianist Makiko Ooka, violinist Seyoung Lee, and violist Caroline Lee. Ooka also accompanied Hong for Samuel Barber’s equally substantial cello sonata in C minor (Opus 6) and provided an arrangement of the orchestral accompaniment for Max Bruch’s Opus 47 “Kol Nidrei.” Hong began the program with the opening Prelude movement of Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 1012 solo cello suite in D major (the last of the set of six). The entire package was an ambitious one, but it was consistently managed confidently and expressively by Hong’s comprehensive grasp of these four highly diverse compositions.
That confidence was reflected, in part, by her relationship with her accompanist. The lid on Ooka’s piano was raised to full-stick height, which was entirely consistent with the aggressively bold sonorities conceived by both Brahms and Barber. However, there was never any doubting her awareness as a chamber music player. She always found the proper dynamic levels that balanced her part against those of the other performers, which made her own expressiveness all the more compelling. Thus, in the Brahms quartet, whether it involved the dramatic intensity that pervades the three Allegro movements or the lyric “breather” of the Andante, which begins as an almost song-like cello solo to which violin and viola gradually interleave their own voices, Ooka’s piano work always found the right level at which to provide both support for the strings and the proper overall blending of sonorities.
Opus 60 was the product of a major struggle on Brahms’ part. He began work on it in 1854, the year in which Robert Schumann attempted suicide and then had himself admitted to an insane asylum. He completed the first version in 1856, the year of Schumann’s death. However, he was not pleased with the work and set it aside for about seventeen years. Eventually a significantly revised version was completed in 1875. He suggested that his publisher put a portrait of Werther, the protagonist of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s novel of unrequited love, on the title page. While Goethe’s novel may have been intended as satire, Werther’s name became associated with Opus 60 in conjunction with Brahms’ relationship with Robert and Clara Schumann.
Barber, on the other hand, completed his cello sonata during his final year at the Curtis Institute of Music, where it was first performed. The level of intensity is not that different from that of Brahms’ Opus 60, but it is the enthusiasm of optimistic youth. The middle movement is an ABA intermezzo in which the inner section is uninhibitedly wild in departing from the lyrically introspective A section. That middle section, however, reflects the same passionate outburst Barber summons to introduce the primary theme of his first movement, a rhetorical stance that continues through the third (and final) movement, in which the second word in the Allegro appassionato tempo marking is clearly intended to be taken literally.
Here again, the balance between piano and cello had much to do with yesterday’s performance being so effective. Barber was out of fashion for much of his life. As a twentieth-century composer, he was disdained for applying his adventurous harmonies to the rhetorical style of the late nineteenth century, almost as if he wished to clothe nineteenth-century figures with twentieth-century attire. This was dismissed as superficiality. However, for those who bothered to seek them out, there were always fascinating undercurrents beneath what others took to be Barber’s slick surface; and the Opus 6 sonata shows that those undercurrents were already forming during Barber’s student days. In the balancing of their respective parts, both Hong and Ooka seemed to grasp the relationship between the “surface structure” of Barber’s soaring melodic lines and the “deep structure” of those undercurrents, making a strong case that Opus 6 is chamber music as deserving of frequent knowledgeable performance as Brahms’ Opus 60 is.
Bruch’s Opus 47, on the other hand, is a relatively brief elaboration on two Jewish themes, the first of which is used for the incantation of the most solemn prayer in the Jewish liturgy (and gives its name to the title of the composition). Nevertheless, there are not really sacred connotations to this music, let alone connotations of any other aspect of Judaism. Bruch was not particularly interested in the sort of “Jewish life” that Ernest Bloch would late explore. In his Opus 47 he simply wanted to explore the potential of two contrasting melodies for symphonic development, using that development as a platform to support the lyric qualities of a solo cello. Hong’s approach seemed to take this music on those abstract terms while, at the same time, allowing full rein to the rhetoric of Bruch’s thoroughly nineteenth-century expressiveness.
Hong’s approach to Bach also involved just the right balance of abstraction and expressiveness. The prelude she performed is one of the lengthier movements in Bach’s collection of solo cello pieces. Bach seemed to have conceived it as a journey across the extremes of register (which may be why it was written for an instrument that included a fifth E string). While everything is notated in a uniformly steady and driving rhythm, Hong shaped her phrases in such a way that the attentive listener could appreciate the physical nature, so to speak, of the “ascent through the registers” that Bach had planned. The richness of her solo rhetoric did much to prepare the listener for how she would then “play well with others,” whether with a piano accompanist or in a more extended chamber ensemble.