It was a busy and exciting week, with the return of the Pacifica Quartet on Nov. 1 and the Sinfonia concert on Nov. 2, featuring Ludwig van Beethoven's monumental Ninth Symphony.
On the previous Saturday evening, Oct. 27, Ian Hobson continued his series of concerts on the complete solo and chamber music for piano of Johannes Brahms.
The most interesting item on the program was Brahms Sonata in F Minor, Op. 34b for two pianos. Timothy Ehlen, associate professor of piano at the University of Illinois School of Music, joined Hobson at a second grand piano on the stage of Smith Music Hall.
This two-piano sonata was in fact an earlier version of the Brahms Piano Quintet, which was on the program of the Pacifica Quartet a few evenings later, in which the quartet was joined by renowned pianist Menahem Pressler. (The Pacifica's scheduling of this famous work was the reason that Hobson did not include it in his Brahms series.)
My first reaction to the Hobson/Ehlen playing of this music was that two grand pianos can produce a much higher level of sound than one piano and a string quartet.
Brahms scholars have noted that some listeners prefer the two piano version of this music. I liked least the opening and concluding movements of this two piano version.
The soft, lovely and beguiling melody of the slow movement comes across well in the piano version, and Hobson and Ehlen's vigorous keyboard work made the Scherzo the most successful part of this arrangement.
Absence clearly makes the heart grow fonder. Such was my conclusion at the very heartfelt applause that greeted the return of the Pacifica Quartet to the Foellinger Great Hall. The sight of Simin Ganatra, Sibbi Bernhardsson, Masumi Per Rostad and Brandon Vamos walking on stage brought back vivid memories, most recently of Dimitri Shostakovich and Beethoven marathons.
The Pacifica's opening work was a rarity, a string quartet by Luigi Boccherini (1743-1805), better known for his 125 string quintets. This quartet was a charming work, and it received a delightful reading from the Pacifica. If this work hit the spot for you, then you would be glad to know that there are 95 other such Boccherini quartets to go!
Stronger and tougher meat was provided by the Sergei Prokofiev Quartet No. 2 that followed. This work was substituted for the Bela Bartok Quartet No. 6, listed in the program. Prokoviev wrote this work in 1941, after the German invasion of Russia. The composer was then in the Kabardino-Balkar region of the north Caucasus mountains, and Prokofiev introduced folk tunes of the region into this quartet.
The treatment of these themes is typical Prokofiev, at times resembling the "Romeo and Juliet" ballet music, composed before World War II. With strong playing from all four of the Pacifica members, and eloquent solos from first violinist and cellist, this work made a strong impact on this listener.
Bernhardsson thanked the audience for our receptiveness to unusual repertory during the Pacifica's nine years here. As he put it, those nine years here had made a deep impression on them, what with marriage of two members and the birth of children to members of the quartet.
Pressler is for me most famous for his long years of excellent chamber music playing with the Beaux Arts Trio. His extraordinary skill in playing in chamber groups showed up in high relief in joining the Pacifica in the Brahms Piano Quintet in F Minor. Sometimes "soft" comes across more eloquently than "louder." Pressler played at volume levels that to me were quite audible, but in perfect balance with the string quartet.
He was very careful to keep his eye on Ganatra, so that the piano and strings achieved precise attacks. The quiet playing of this ensemble made the dramatic and turbulent passages of this great work all the more impressive. The ebb and flow of intensity in the finale was masterfully controlled so that the abrupt ending brought the audience to their feet.
The ovation resulted in an encore, the scherzo (furiant) movement of the Antonin Dvorak Piano Quintet in A. I trust that the Pacifica will return early and often. The lighted candle remains in the window.
On the next night, Hobson and the Sinfonia da Camera achieved the near impossible, how to make two great and popular pieces of music successful without making one of them seem anticlimactic.
The evening began with the grandest of Beethoven's Piano Concertos, the "Emperor," No. 5 in E-Flat Major. Conducting from the piano, Hobson led a stirring and propulsive reading of this masterpiece. But it was Hobson's dazzling virtuosity at the keyboard that made this reading especially exciting.
Hobson's performance was a masterly combination of fast scales and lyrical molding of phrases. This concerto is a jewel of tight balancing, and its buoyant energy the epitome of mid-period Beethoven at his greatest.
For a work so universally revered as Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, I find the opening movement difficult to love. Beethoven did not frontload this work. It is like a great mountain, with the grandest view to be achieved at the end. The second movement Scherzo was lively and impressive, especially with the adroit tympany work of William Mullen.
Soon after, the strings of the Sinfonia beautifully unfolded the great second theme of the Adagio movement.
The vocal quartet, consisting of Ollie Watts Davis, soprano, Viktoria Vizin, mezzo-soprano, Humberto Rivera, tenor, and Ricardo Herrera, bass-baritone, offered finely blended and emotionally charged singing in the finale. Herrera was resounding in the opening declamation of the vocal section, and Rivera offered stirring singing during the Turkish March section. The combined forces of the UI Chorale and the UI Oratorio Society, expertly trained by Fred Stoltzfus, were splendid.
Hobson's conducting was especially impressive in controlling these large forces in the many tempo changes in the finale, and Beethoven's splendid building to a thrilling climax was fully achieved, and resulted in cheers and an audience standing and applauding as hard as they could.
Stoltzfus came on stage with Hobson and the soloists, and when floral bouquets were passed around Stoltzfus lifted his to the choruses in the balcony in tribute to their splendid singing. It was a triumph all around.
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 email@example.com.