Romanticism times three at South Mountain

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PITTSFIELD — Time ran backward at South Mountain, starting at the end of the romantic period and ending in its middle.

In Sunday's opening concert of its 101st season, the chamber music series brought back two of its veteran artists, pianist Wu Han and cellist David Finckel, who in turn brought along two guests, violinist Arnaud Sussman and violist Paul Neubauer. Exhilarating performances saved the romanticism-saturated program, which went from Dohnanyi to Dvorak to Brahms, from becoming too much of a good thing.

Brahms was the link. The program began with Ernst von Dohanyi's 1903 Serenade for violin, viola and cello, the Hungarian-born composer's best-known work. Much indebted to Brahms, it indeed sounds like Brahms' two serenades for orchestra. It was also part of romanticism's last gasp, before Schoenberg and Stravinsky put nails in the coffin.

The program went on to Dvorak's 1894 Sonatina for violin and piano and, as a sock-`em finale, Brahms' 1860-61 Piano Quartet No. 1.

Interesting connection. Schumann's support for Brahms, welcoming the younger composer into his home and thereby sparking the love between Brahms and Clara Schumann, is well known. Less known is the similar favor Brahms bestowed (minus romance) on Dvorak.

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Dvorak was puttering along as an obscure Bohemian composer when Brahms encountered his music through service on an Austrian scholarship commission. Impressed, Brahms recommended Dvorak to his own publisher. The two composers met and became friends, Brahms eventually editing and correcting some of the scores sent in by Dvorak, who was rather careless in some of his scoring. Brahms' "Hungarian Dances" inspired Dvorak's "Slavonic Dances."

The Dvorak sonatina was actually written for children, including his six. In style, it recalls his contemporaneous "American" String Quartet (No. 12). As performed by the finely matched duo of Sussman and Wu Han, the bauble became both artless in its simplicity and serious in underlying content.

The impassioned Brahms quartet called upon the many powers of the full ensemble. Highly charged, the performance built to a tremendous march in the midst of the otherwise mellow Andante and climaxed in the whirling Gypsy finale. Faster and faster the movement went, until it seemed about to whirl right off the stage.

(Well, it did whirl off. For an encore after that, violist Neubauer turned himself into a Gypsy fiddler strolling down the hall's center aisle, pausing to play to members of the audience and generally leaving mayhem in his wake.)

The four musicians seemed wonderfully attuned in Brahms. Wu Han, who spoke briefly from the stage about how long and how much she has loved South Mountain, again seemed the complete collaborative pianist, clear in her touch and just assertive enough to undergird the performance without overpowering the strings.                    

Other memorable moments could be recalled — Dohnanyi's melodious theme-and-variations movement among them — but it's enough to say that if Wu Han loves South Mountain, South Mountain loves Wu Han, David Finckel (her husband as well as concert partner) and any friends they might bring with them.

Other memorable moments could be recalled — Dohnanyi's melodious theme-and-variations movement among them — but it's enough to say that if Wu Han loves South Mountain, South Mountain loves Wu Han, David Finckel (her husband as well as concert partner) and any friends they might bring with them.


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