nadja salerno-sonnenberg

Chamber Music Northwest review: Bonding with Brahms

Festival and composer make a happy musical marriage

by JEFF WINSLOW

Johannes Brahms had a reputation as a prickly and formidable character, and it’s true his closest relationships tended to be his most difficult. But if his music is any guide, he was as capable of amiability and affection as anyone. One of his tenderest and most blissful works is the late violin and piano sonata, op. 100.  All three of his violin and piano sonatas feature unusually equal partnership between the instruments, but in this work the two seem to embrace and even occasionally squabble like lovers. And yet in how many performances, even by musicians famous enough to know better, does the pianist tinkle out what should be a soaring melody while the violinist saws away at music that should be quietly supportive, more like a marriage on the rocks?

Nadja Salerno Sonnenberg and Anne Marie McDermott perform Brahms's Violin Sonata No. 2 in A Major, Op. 100. Photo by Tom Emerson

Nadja Salerno Sonnenberg and Anne Marie McDermott perform Brahms’s Violin Sonata No. 2 in A Major, Op. 100. Photo by Tom Emerson

Violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg and pianist Anne-Marie McDermott are both formidable and even famous musicians, but that didn’t keep them from bonding nearly to perfection in this work, which opened the Portland State University series of this summer’s Chamber Music Northwest festival and the first of two all-Brahms concerts, at Lincoln Performance Hall Tuesday evening. McDermott used her generous dynamic range to full effect, roundly but delicately supporting Salerno-Sonnenberg’s ineffably sweet tone one minute and unabashedly singing front and center the next, while Salerno-Sonnenberg proved just as adept at insinuating sly asides as at passionately pouring out the expected melodies. Maybe there was a bit too much piano when the full house soaked up Salerno-Sonnenberg’s pizzicato (plucked notes), but aside from a very few such moments, I was totally absorbed in an experience of aural love from the first note to the last. Conventional “accompaniment” would have been like a cold shower, replacing intimacy with distance.

Among highlights too many to list, two were especially moving. The middle movement is a mashup of the traditional slow and scherzo movements, and at the final reprise of the soulful slow material, the violin melody ascends into the heavens while the piano harmony turns such colors that to continue the relationship analogy would verge on pornography. The colors continue to bloom as the violin holds one pitch high on the E string at the very peak of the phrase. Here Salerno-Sonnenberg achieved an intensity that was utterly transporting, yet it wouldn’t have happened without McDermott’s sublimely melded support.

The final reprise of the genial theme of the finale was another such highlight. It follows a stormy section in which McDermott confidently held the piano in equal balance with the imploring violin above, despite having to tear through at least ten times as many notes. As if by magic, when the theme started up again, the warmth of a deep forgiveness seemed to suffuse the hall, as when Countess Rosina forgives Count Almaviva near the end of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, or the man in Arnold Schoenberg’s Transfigured Night forgives his unfaithful lover, but completely untainted by the latter work’s self-congratulatory overtones. At such moments, music does indeed seem the food of an all-encompassing love, with no danger of surfeit.

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