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Brahms the Second? – perhaps Herzogenberg the First?

By , 29/08/2012

St Mark’s Lower Hutt Concert Series

BEETHOVEN and HERZOGENBERG

Jane Young (‘cello) / Hugh McMillan (piano)

BEETHOVEN- ‘Cello Sonata No.4 in C Op.102 No.1

HERZOGENBERG – ‘Cello Sonata No.3 in E-flat Op.94

St.Mark’s Church, Woburn, Lower Hutt

Wednesday, 29th August 20

What a lovely concert! – a wonderful idea by Jane Young and Hugh McMillan to present something of a “standard classic” in tandem with something else rather less known, to the advantage of both!

In a sense, each of the pieces represented an adventure, albeit of a different kind. Beethoven’s Op.102 ‘Cello Sonatas completed the process already begun by the composer with his Op.69 Sonata, of inventing something new – an “equal partnership” between ‘cello and piano for such an instrumental combination.

By comparison, Herzonberg’s work seemed to bravely and steadfastly explore paths already trodden by giants such as Brahms, managing, in places, to convey his own late-Romantic slant to the familiar terrain, with attractive and absorbing results.

The Beethoven Sonata opened beautifully and tremulously, as if the composer was depicting the unfurling of a flower in the sunlight – the phrasing between both players properly resonated, their full accord expressed through a sense of hand-in-glove phrasing and beautifully-modulated tones. Beethoven seemed here to be anticipating Schumann’s poetical musings, his themes at once spontaneously expressive and contained, hinting at darker feelings.

The Allegro vivace alternated freely between playfulness and purpose, only the ‘cello’s highest notes giving any suggestion of strain for the player. It all made a telling contrast with the Adagio’s relative darkness and gradual lightening of mood.

Both players timed their respective “not ready yet” figurations at the finale’s beginning to perfection, the ‘cello’s wonderful drone-notes creating whole worlds of mystery, which the piano then gently mocked with “Well,are you coming along?” phrases.

I thought Jane Young’s and Hugh McMillan’s playing gave the episode a wonderful “boys’ and girls’ own” freshness of utterance and movement. But their playing of the whole sonata was as good, at practically every point presenting their listeners with opportunities in the music for engagement and participation. I felt the musicians made practically every note of the work eloquent and distinctive.

Hugh McMillan talked briefly about our “mystery” composer, Heinrich von Herzogenberg, one whose name I knew in connection with Brahms, via correspondence between the latter and Elisabet von Herzogenberg. Brahms was on good terms with both husband and wife, though he may have harboured a secret passion for Elisabet, whom he wrote to frequently. Towards the end of his life he paid a kind of belated homage to Herzogenberg’s music, acknowledging its quality.

Herzogenberg’s ‘Cello Sonata No.3 does show the influence of his great contemporary in places, especially in the piano writing throughout the opening movement, while in other places I detected vestiges of the Mendelssohn of the Octet. The last few pages of the movement achieved a swing and flow amid a grandeur of utterance that seemed the composer’s own, as did much of the slow movement, though again the piano writing had a big-boned Brahmsian feel to it. The players readily enjoyed the contrast between the lyrical opening and the running middle section of the music, with gaily tripping piano and cello pizzicati.

The work has a kind of ‘grand finale’, a theme and variations movement which, in some circumstances might be thought a trifle long, though Jane Young and Hugh McMillan kept our interest simmering with both their interchanges and occasional “solo” sequences. An occasional moment of strain regarding the cello’s intonation mattered far less than the player’s feeling for phrases and their integration into the flow of things, which satisfied greatly. My feeling at the work’s conclusion was less of a “Brahms the Second” response to the music , and more along the lines of “Herzogenberg the First” – thanks in part to these two musicians’ whole-hearted advocacy.

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