The leaves have turned. The skies are cloudy. The wind is from the north. The first frost is on the ground, and winter is in the air. It's what the old-timers called Brahms weather. Some composers know no season — Mozart is good any time of the year — but some composers are different: Rachmaninoff is good only in the winter, and Brahms is definitely a musician of autumn. At its most characteristic, his music is ripe and full of wisdom, music that feels the chill in the air but knows that the beauty of life is in its evanescence.
Brahms was at his most exalted in his orchestral works, his most personal in his piano works, and his most spiritual in his choral works. But he may have been at his best in his sociable chamber music and straightforward songs. In the chamber music, a handful of performers hold a musical conversation among themselves on matters deep and true; in the songs, a pair of performers speak directly to the audience of matters near and dear.
On Saturday, November 4, at Kerrytown Concert House, the Ann Arbor audience can hear Brahms at his autumnal best when violinist Hai-Xin Wu, the Detroit Symphony's assistant concertmaster, and Karl Pituch, the DSO's principal hornist, join Ann Arbor's own pianist Michele Cooker for performances of two of Brahms's chamber music masterpieces: the D Minor Violin Sonata and the E-flat Major Horn Trio. And in between, soprano Jane Rodgers and pianist Kevin Bylsma, the duo who bring you the Ann Arbor Festival of Song, will perform Brahms's Gypsy Songs.
"Brahms is great," says violinist Wu. "Brahms is my favorite composer." An exuberant fellow with a quick laugh, Wu has been with the DSO for twelve years, the last three as assistant concertmaster, but he still finds time every week for chamber music. "This is all very lyrical Brahms," he says, "not just the songs but the sonata." The D Minor Violin Sonata, the last of three, is late Brahms, Brahms after the last symphony and just before his official retirement — Brahms full of passionate reserve and heroic restraint. "Especially the Horn Trio," Wu continues. "It's very lyrical and got a very mellow sound." The E-flat Trio for Horn, Violin, and Piano is Brahms at his early maturity, Brahms before the First Symphony, even before Ein deutsches Requiem, Brahms full of glorious melody and tremendous energy but also touched in the Adagio mesto by a sadness occasioned by his beloved mother's recent death.
Wu says he plays chamber music with Michele Cooker "quite often, sometimes at DSO functions and sometimes at other things." As in all the best chamber music partnerships, Wu says he and Cooker understand each other: "We don't need to talk. It's just there."
[Review published November 2006]