On Feb. 20, Ian Hobson continued his series of concerts on the complete solo and chamber music for piano of Johannes Brahms. Hobson was joined by violist Csaba Erdelyi in playing the world premiere of Erdelyi's revision of his arrangement of Brahms' Sonata in D major for Violin and Piano, Op. 78.
While believing that Brahms had taken part in the arrangement of this violin sonata for cello, Erdelyi published in 1991 an arrangement for viola that combined insights of the original sonata and the cello arrangement. Recently, however, Erdelyi read an article that proved that Brahms had not done the cello arrangement. So Erdelyi redid his arrangement for viola, basing it only on the Brahms original for violin.
This sonata is a gentle work, with an especially beguiling melody in its first movement. Erdelyi's arrangement uses the mellower sound of the viola to highlight the melancholy overtones of this work. Erdelyi's performance of his arrangement, ably supported by Hobson at the piano, was a model of restrained lyrical playing, with contrasting vigorous projection of the inner turmoil of this music.
The performance was warmly applauded by the Smith Hall audience at the end.
During the balance of the program, Hobson performed the eight piano pieces of Brahms Opus 76. These short capricci and intermezzi were published in 1879, when Brahms was 46. The usual view of Brahms is that of an upholder of classical values in his larger compositions but of a more personal, romantic composer in his later shorter works. Of these Op. 76 works, the No. 2, Capriccio in B minor is most familiar to me, with its skipping opening theme.
The rest of these short pieces explore a range of highly personal moods, and in this concert Hobson highlighted the shifting range of emotions. Brahms had the instincts of a showman, and the final Capriccio in C major gave Hobson the chance to display his formidable virtuoso skills. Some of the audience stood applauding in appreciation of Hobson's artistry.
China National Symphony
On Feb. 24, the China National Symphony Orchestra played a program in the Foellinger Great Hall of Krannert Center for the Performing Arts that included the violin concerto of Jean Sibelius and the tone poem, "A Hero's Life" by Richard Strauss.
This orchestra, founded in 1956, toured the United States in 2006 and is currently on a return visit. I counted 103 players in the program, and this orchestra crowded the stage, with 57 string players alone.
The first work on the program expressed the reaction of composer Xia Guan to the devastating 2008 earthquake in the Wenchuan area of Sichuan Province. We heard the first movement of Guan's "Earth Requiem," with the subtitle, "Gazing at the Stars." It began with sweet and sad melodies which reminded me somewhat of Gustav Mahler's Ninth Symphony. As these melodies were developed, the strings of this orchestra displayed much beauty of tone. At this movement's climax, the exotic sounds of three Chinese bells were heard. The movement ended with a moving expression of mingled sadness and sympathetic resignation.
The rest of the program's first half was devoted to Sibelius' piece, with Chuanyun Li as soloist. Li was a child prodigy, and he has studied at the Juilliard School in New York with Dorothy Delay and Itzhak Perlman.
He presents an arresting appearance on stage and a transcendental technique on the violin, and he plays with great intensity, moving about as he plays. As the work progressed, Li's movements became more elaborate, resembling dance steps. I was struck by his frequent sliding from one musical phrase to another in the heat of his impassioned playing. Li gave his all to the articulation of melodies and the highlighting of rhythms in this concerto.
At the beginning, I was moved by Li's emotional intensity. But after a while, I found that he was pulling Sibelius' phrases out of shape for dramatic effect. The immediate effect was a distance between Li's free-wheeling solo playing and the restrained orchestral playing, under the capable conducting of Maestro Xincao Li, and the finales of the opening and closing movements had less than their possible dramatic effect.
But the strong applause of the audience stirred Li to play an encore. He started playing as fast as possible and dancing about. Later, he played with increasing intensity, along the way, using his violin to imitate animal noises. His dancing became so vigorous that he fell down on his back but leaped up and fiddled on with furious abandon. I was told later that this encore was described as "Romanian Pop Improv" with the title "Hora Staccato."
Now, I am familiar with Grigoras Dinicu's "Hora Stacato," an encore piece championed by Jascha Heifetz, and taken up by all violinists some time ago. I found little resemblance between what Li played and the Dinicu piece. Nevertheless, many in the audience were strongly enthusiastic.
The major work on the program was the Strauss work, which demands the most strenuous efforts of both a conductor and the instrumentalists.
Xincao Li drew an emotionally moving and technically accomplished reading from the fine players of the China National Symphony Orchestra. The polished and brilliant playing by concertmaster Yunzhi Liu during the love scene section was a model of tasteful musicianship, and the conductor is to be commended for maintaining dramatic interest during the battle scene, which in some performances can go on too long.
The remarkable section in which Strauss quotes his own works as "The Hero's Work of Peace" was deeply moving, and the finale of this mighty work glowed with autumnal splendor. Liu called for bows for the concertmaster, first horn and the principal flutist and oboist, and the splendid playing of brass, winds, and strings were also enthusiastically applauded, with many in the audience standing, especially downstairs.
Liu responded to the applause by leading the strings of the orchestra in playing a delightful and tasteful version of a Chinese traditional folk song, "A Pleasant Evening."
The highly accomplished playing of the China National Symphony Orchestra suggests that classical music in China is in secure hands.
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.