John Frayne | Weimar group truly dazzles at Foellinger

John Frayne | Weimar group truly dazzles at Foellinger

On March 10, the Staatskapelle Weimar, led by its Ukrainian director Kirill Karabits, came to the Foellinger Great Hall for an evening of the music of Johannes Brahms.

Weimar is a relatively small city in the former East Germany (population: 65,000), but it is famous for its association with the poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and the composer/pianist Franz Liszt. It was also the capital of Germany from 1919 to 1933, and during that period it gave its name to the liberal-leaning Weimar Republic. The Staatskapelle Weimar is apparently the major orchestra of the German federal state of Thuringia.

The Weimar orchestra is a big one, particularly in its string and brass sections, and in the opening "Academic Festival Overture" of Brahms, this ensemble gave a grandiose account of this montage of student songs, which showed the lighter side of Brahms' musical personality. Indeed, the orchestral brass in the climactic entry of the famous student song, "Gaudeamus Igitur" ("Therefore, let us rejoice") was a joyous sonic explosion.

The Brahms Violin Concert, which followed, with Ukrainian violinist Valery Sokolov as soloist, unfolded with majestic and warm-toned splendor. Sokolov's sweet tone blended well with the orchestra's woodwind section, and oboist Brigitte Horlitz made a strong impression with her songful opening to the second movement.

The performance went into high gear in the gypsy finale, with lively interplay between Sokolov, and the orchestra, strongly conducted by Maestro Karabits. Sokolov had shown ultimate mastery of his instrument in the first movement cadenza of the Concerto, and in his encore at the Concerto's end, he dazzled us with violinistic tricks, so outlandish that they drew chuckles from the audience. This encore turned out to be the cadenza from Nicolò Paganini's First Violin Concerto.

The Symphony No. 1 of Brahms drew both intense and tender playing from the Weimar instrumentalists. The horns and the trombones were splendid in the finale as they led up to that supreme moment, the entry of the theme for the strings, sometimes compared to the "Ode to Joy" theme of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.

The mighty final trombone chorale called forth a roar from the audience, and Karabits and his players complied with a wild, thrilling playing of Brahms' Hungarian Dance No. 6.

Brilliant piano recital

On March 14, pianist Yekwon Sunwoo, who won the Van Cliburn International Competiton Gold Medal, came to the Foellinger Great hall, and demonstrated marvelous pianistic skills.

Clearly a major talent, Sunwoo played with the most delicate sensitivity and also with enormous power and dazzling velocity when the music demanded those skills.

Sunwoo is a poet of the keyboard, with obvious Romantic sensibilities.

As opener, he made the unusual choice of Percy Grainger's "Ramble on the Last Love-Duet from Richard Strauss' 'Der Rosenkavalier.'"

This elaborate paraphrase of the tender music, which expresses the happy bliss of Sophie and Octavian at the end of the Strauss opera, drew from Sunwoo sympathetic and light-hearted playing.

In Franz Schubert's "Four Impromptus," Op. 142, which followed, Sunwoo played Schubert's varied and supremely melodic pieces with impeccable taste and without exaggerations.

The choice of Brahms' Piano Sonata No. 2 in F-sharp Minor, Op. 2 was a daring one. This was actually Brahms' first sonata, and the opening and closing movements are a hard sell for a pianist, but Sunwoo was able to give them persuasive structural integrity.

The interior movements have more emotionally palatable materials, and these more lyrical moments were played with appealing intimacy by Sunwoo.

Lucy Miller Murray's excellent notes stated that this Brahms Sonata, published in 1854, "may have been first performed for the first time on February 2, 1882."

It seems very strange that a sonata by Brahms, dedicated to Clara Schumann, was not performed at a public concert until 34 years after its publication.

In Sunwoo's last selection on the program, Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 12, good taste was not an option.

This piece calls for barn-burning virtuosity, and Sunwoo showed how fast he could spin out Liszt's extravagances.

After a thunderous reception of the Liszt piece, Sunwoo continued on a high virtuosic level with Liszt's transcription of Paganini's "La Campanella" ("The Little Bell"), which was the finale of Paganini's Second Violin Concerto.

Then, as second encore, Sunwoo played with soulful melancholy, the "October" section of Tchaikovsky's Piano Suite, "The Months."

Sunwoo is the first Korean to win Van Cliburn gold, and after the recital, the line of Sunwoo fans, eager to meet him, stretched far across the Krannert lobby.

Are comparisons with Lang Lang in order?

Time will tell.

John Frayne hosts "Classics of the Phonograph" on Saturdays at WILL-FM and, in retirement, teaches at the UI. Reach him at

Topics (1):Music