John Frayne: Hobson handles Brahms with aplomb

Ian Hobson went "Gypsy" in the Feb. 5 concert in his Complete Solo and Chamber Music for Piano of Johannes Brahms series.

Before an audience in Smith Music Hall larger than for some earlier concerts in this series, Hobson started the concert with a solo piano version of the first set of 10 Hungarian dances of Brahms. These arrangements of popular Hungarian melodies were originally published in a four-hand version in 1869 and later in 1872, in a solo piano version, which Hobson said was far more virtuosic than the four-hand version.

And Hobson played these elaborate versions with his accustomed brilliance. Once omnipresent in Gypsy cafes and played by palm court salon ensembles, the first five or so of these dances are very famous. Oddly enough, the last three or four are less well known.

After this set, Hobson was joined by pianist Ed Rath in the 1880 set of 11 dances, in the four-hand arrangement. Hobson had noted in his introduction that Brahms preferred this four-hand version as being more subtle, and yes, with less technical pyrotechnics, the four-hand playing of Rath and Hobson had a more subdued and low-key charm about it than the first set.

Among these 1880 dances, I found that only No. 17 in F-sharp minor is among the most famous of the dances. And, true to the popular perception of the Hungarian character, most of the dances begin in the minor mode, but, csardas-like, they usually explode with a major mode episode in the middle.

After a solid hour of Hungarian dances, even the lover of paprika and tokay wine might say "Enough!"

Hobson was wise to include Brahms' chamber music with piano in this series. This allows for a wider variety of timbres than that of the piano. And in the second part of the program, Hobson was joined by a distinguished trio of string players.

Stefan Milenkovich is well known to local audiences for the brilliance of his playing. Violist Csaba Erdelyi is also familiar for his fine work as principal violist with the Sinfonia da Camera. Guest artist Pablo Mahave-Veglia made a notable contribution to the ensemble with his accomplished cello playing.

Hobson and Co. gave a deeply moving performance of one of Brahms' chamber music masterpieces, the Piano Quartet in G minor, Op. 25. This rather long and leisurely piece sports some of Brahms' finest melodies, and lest we thought we left Magyar exuberance behind, the "Gypsy Rondo" finale roused the audience to a high level of excitement, and a standing ovation. In future Brahms recitals, Hobson will be joined by Erdelyi and guest violinist Andres Cardenes as well as other local artists in chamber music pieces.

ECCO show resounding

Two evenings later, in the Foellinger Great Hall at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, the East Coast Chamber Orchestra gave an exciting program of mainly 20th century masterpieces for string ensembles.

This youthful ensemble performs without a conductor, and we were told by a member of the ensemble that members arrive at all decisions by democratic process. Thus, it must have been by vote that they did not play the four "Fantasias" by Henry Purcell listed in the program. A not very clear announcement told us that Purcell was to be replaced by Arvo Prt's work "Fratres" ("Brothers" in Latin). Some members in the audience told me at intermission time they did not know what had been played.

Prt, born in 1935 in Estonia, is famous for the spiritual inspiration of his pieces. "Fratres" was composed in 1977 and revised some time later. It exists in many forms, and ECCO performed the version for violin solo, strings, and percussion.

Over a low-pitched drone, soloist Susie Park performed separately and with the ensemble a series of chord sequences that had the intensity and formality of a religious ritual. At the end, the music died away to a whisper, making the hefty applause seem startling.

The first work that announced Benjamin Britten's genius to the world was his "Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge," which premiered at the Salzburg Festival in 1937. Frank Bridge was Britten's teacher, and in this homage, Britten puts the bridge theme through sometimes wildly different music styles and moods. The most popular variation seemed to be the "Aria Italiana" send-up of Italian opera, in which many of the musicians strummed their instruments in mandolin style.

This work gets more serious as it goes along, and I was waiting for the great ending. And sure enough, in the finale, Britten builds up almost unbearable harmonic suspense, which resolves with an unforgettable sigh of resignation.

In this and in the Bela Bartok "Divertimento for String Orchestra," which followed intermission, ECCO played with youthful verve and highly disciplined ensemble. The Bartok piece bore the familiar composer's trademarks of rhythmic vitality, and sharp and sudden changes of mood. The polytonal dissonances of the slow movement are broken by wild Hungarian abandon in the finale.

The program concluded with a fascinating musical mix: one of the most famous melodies of the Baroque period was "La Follia" (Italian spelling). Francesco Geminiani (1687-1762) created a well-known version of "La Follia" in his Concerto Grosso No. 12 in d minor. ECCO member Michi Wiancko has long loved "La Follia" and decided to add some piquant modern touches to Geminiani's treatment. These additions included sounds of the tambourine, and percussive wood-blocks, and foot-stamping by the ECCO players. The high jinks evoked a round of stormy standing applause at concert's end.

One could not complain that there was no tune to whistle as you left Krannert. "La Follia" followed me to the parking garage and beyond.

John Frayne hosts "Classics of the Phonograph" on Saturdays at WILL-FM and, in retirement, teaches at the University of Illinois. He can be reached at frayne@illinois.edu.

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