This afternoon in the Noontime Concerts™ recital series (“San Francisco’s Musical Lunch Break”) at Old St. Mary’s Cathedral, the recitalists were the duo of violinist Liana Bérubé and pianist Jeffrey LaDeur, who, when joined by cellist Michelle Kwon, also form the Delphi Trio. These are musicians with a broad scope of repertoire, but it is also clear that they take great pleasure in plumbing the expressive depths of chamber music from the nineteenth century. This was clearly the case with today’s program, whose “main event” was Johannes Brahms’ Opus 108 (third) sonata for violin and piano in D minor, preceded by two short romances, the first in C major by Joseph Joachim (the first piece in his Opus 2 collection) and the second by Antonín Dvořák (Opus 11 in F minor).
Opus 108 is the last of Brahms’ three violin sonatas, composed between 1878 and 1888. In that framework it overlapped his work on his second sonata (Opus 100 in A major), his second cello sonata (Opus 99 in F major), his third piano trio (Opus 101 in C minor), and his imaginative “double” concerto for violin, cello, and orchestra (Opus 102 in A minor). Brahms was clearly not only highly productive but also imaginatively so at this mature stage in his career.
Opus 108 is the only one of the three violin sonatas in four movements. Yet what, in a four-movement structure, would count as a scherzo is given a tempo marking of Un poco presto e con sentimento, both “poco” and “sentimento” suggesting a departure from the usual scherzo rhetoric. Indeed, that is not the only departure. Each of the first three movements comes to a relatively quiet ending, suggesting overall impressions of introspection. However, those suggestions are blown away in the concluding Presto agitato movement, when Brahms summons up the full force of vigorous expressiveness.
As a duo Bérubé and LaDeur made a perfect match when it came to assuming the appropriate rhetorical stances. They had no trouble realizing the first three movements with carefully controlled understatement, lending just the right jolt of shock value with the beginning of the final movement. Their overall sense of tempo allowed this journey from deepest night into a dazzling dawn to emerge with just the right level of attention-grabbing expressiveness without ever overdoing any of its gestures. This was the sort of Brahms experience that attentive listeners look forward to and cherish.
In that context the shorter pieces served primarily as “warm-up acts.” There was almost a sense of charming facility to Joachim’s melodic material, perhaps suggested by the use of the adjective “Mendelssohnian” in the accompanying program notes. In fact the Opus 2 pieces were written between 1848 and 1852, meaning that Joachim began work on them shortly after Mendelssohn’s death in 1847. Whether they represent the effort of a young virtuoso to honor a past master is a claim unlikely to be either warranted or defeated. However, all three pieces in the set probably served Joachim well as he was building up his career as a concert recitalist; and the romance was given a suitably expressive account in Bérubé’s reading.
Dvořák’s Opus 11, on the other hand, was a bit more problematic, since he had conceived the music for violin and orchestra. While it is the case that he prepared his own piano version of the accompaniment, it was clear that many of the repeated statements of the opening motif had been intended for different instruments. Nevertheless, Bérubé was, once again, true to the expressiveness of the violin solo part, providing an alternative rhetoric of introspection to prepare the listener for the more penetrating rhetoric to be encountered in the Brahms sonata.