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Pianist duo just dazzling in playing Bach, Brahms

  • Jul 1, 2010
[caption id="attachment_2794" align="alignright" width="219" caption="Conductor Craig Hella Johnson leads the bows following Cantata BWV 34"][/caption]From the Register-Guard Over the years, J.S. Bach and Johannes Brahms have become cozy partners on many an Oregon Bach Festival program. On Tuesday, they were joined again in a concert that included an early and a late Bach cantata and Brahms’ lovely “Liebeslieder Waltzes” and the always enjoyable “Hungarian Dances.” The dazzling piano duo of Ya-Fei Chuang and Robert Levin joined a reduced festival chorus and orchestra in a stimulating concert. Conductor Craig Hella Johnson, a former student at the festival and now a noted conductor, gave solid readings of Bach’s works and a vibrant, dramatic interpretation of Brahms’ waltz songs. The Bach cantatas contrasted nicely with one another. Most likely the earliest of Bach’s work in this form, BWV 131 was a penitential cantata set in G minor, and it exhibited all of the symbolism of Bach’s deeply religious music. The second and later cantata, BVW 34, was set in the bright tonality of D major. It was a joyful celebration of Pentecost, with Guy Few’s brilliant high trumpet setting the mood. Johnson did much to adhere to early music practices in his reading of Bach. The small chorus exhibited pure, vibrato-less singing, with the strings following suit. In Baroque music, vibrato was considered an ornamental device to be used sparingly. Bass Nathan Berg was the most successful of the soloists to replicate this spare singing line. I enjoyed his interpretation of Bach more than I did his approach to Giuseppe Verdi last Friday, because he exhibited a better legato line in Bach. Festival regular James Taylor sang with his usual lovely lyric tenor. His voice has darkened over the years, and those high Bs are not as easy to come by, but his singing is always a joy to hear. The alto, Laura Atkinson, sang her one solo without much shape or beauty, in part because she lacked solid breath support. Allan Vogel applied his gleaming oboe sound to the obbligato in the first cantata, and Few and his fellow trumpeters soared in the second work. The second portion of the concert was devoted to Brahms, beginning with five of his seductive “Hungarian Dances.” With Chuang at the upper end of the piano and Levin on the lower, their four-hand rendition of these dances was both delicate in the slow sections and robust in those frenzied, foot-stomping parts. The most impressive portion of the concert was Brahms’ “Liebeslieder Waltzes” for chorus and four-hand piano. What could have been a boring repetition of the three-quarter waltz meter is in Brahms’ hands an amazing variety of rhythmic emphases. Johnson conducted these songs with more dramatic flair than I have ever heard, but the result was both persuasive and moving. The two lullabies, for instance, were slowed to a sleepwalking pace, and in two other songs, which complain about the gossip of neighbors, the chorus spit out the recurring sibilants as if imitating the whispers of gossipers. The choral group for the Brahms work filled Beall Hall with beautiful romantic, vibrato-filled singing. Marilyn Farwell, a professor emerita of English at the University of Oregon, reviews vocal and choral music for The Register-Guard.