San Antonio continues to intrigue with its citywide Brahms Festival. Dallas and Fort Worth arts organizations should take a look at the advantages of collaborating on such a large event. Previously, I reviewed a chamber music concert in this festival presented by the San Antonio Chamber Music Society and the more eclectic Musical Bridges Around the World. It featured Gary Levinson, Senior Principal Associate Concertmaster of the Dallas Symphony and the outstanding pianist Darejan Baya Kakouberi, who also is the Executive Director of the Dallas' Blue Candlelight Music Series.
On Feb. 3, another Dallas musical celebrity played some lovely Brahms as part of the ongoing festival. Once again, it was the Musical Bridges Around the World that was the presenter and this time it was Dallas-based Emanuel Borok was the violinist. Borok recently retired as the Concertmaster of the Dallas Symphony, a post he held since 1985.
Also on the program was the superb collaborative pianist Elena Portnaya, a graduate of the Moscow Conservatory. In addition to chamber music, she enjoys working as an opera coach with companies such as the Houston Grand Opera. He was joined by her husband, violist Mark Cheikhet, who tours as a soloist and chamber musician throughout the world. The other participant on the varied program was mezzo-soprano Carolyn Sproule, a member of the Houston Grand Opera apprentice program and a regional finalist in the Metropolitan Opera National Council auditions.
The venue was the spectacular San Fernando Cathedral in downtown San Antonio. Built in 1731, it is the oldest cathedral in Texas that is still in use. A major renovation in 2003 created the beautiful space we see today. It has soaring arches, white stone walls, and is filled with exquisite details, such as a series of hand carved scenarios around the outside walls depicting the Stations of the Cross. A huge golden retablo of hand carved wood and gilded with gold in the Spanish tradition, covers the entire wall behind the altar and features a nearly life-sized crucifix.
The sound is better than you would expect in such a high-ceilinged space. While there is more echo than in a modern concert hall, it is not all that much in the way. Since the performers are in the middle of the cathedral and the sound tends to swirl around, they mentioned that have more trouble hearing each other than the audience does hearing the final effect.
The program was Brahms; no surprise there. What was a pleasant surprise was the appearance of some works that are rarely heard. Cheikhet and Portnaya gave a very pleasing performance of the composer’s viola sonata. This is a late work, composed in 1894. Cheikhet’s viola didn’t produce the big deep sound that you usually expect from the violin’s larger cousin and there was an occasional intonation problem (or maybe just a blurring of the notes because of the acoustics). As Portnaya was all evening, she was the perfect accompanist here. She was supportive, but never once overpowering, and always right with the solo instrument.
A true rarity followed. This would be two songs by Brahms for piano, viola and alto voice. The viola and the alto are in the same range, and in fact, the viola’s music is written in the alto clef rather than the treble clef that is used for the violin.
It was a major oversight not to include the words to these two songs in the program, or even the names of the songs. Since they were in German, and Sproule’s diction was mushy, trying to figure out what was going on in text of the songs proved futile. In any event, they were typical Brahms, and thus quite beautiful.
Sproule is a true mezzo with a solid sound that is well-placed. She has an attractive evenness in all the registers from top to bottom. The most obvious problem she has is her failure to open her mouth when she sings. Not only would this have helped with diction, but also there is probably twice the voice lurking behind her closed lips. If so, she could have a major career, because the voice is quite large as it is and world class as it might be.
Borok brought the concert to a satisfying close with a deeply personal performance of Brahms’ lyrical G major sonata. Brahms wrote at least three early violin sonatas but destroyed them all. Thus, this, his Sonata No.1, didn’t arrive until 1879.
There is a back-story of the piece. Brahms was very close with Robert Schumann and weirdly close to his wife, Clara, who was the greatest pianist of the day. The slow movement of this work was composed just prior to the death of Felix Schumann (the Schumanns’ son and Brahms' godson). Brahms sent a fragment of the first 24 bars of the slow movement to Clara when Felix died because he was emotionally unable to write a letter of sympathy. The sonata is dedicated to the memory of Felix, who was a violinist.
Borok took a more reserved and Teutonic approach to this music, eschewing the sentimentality that can sometimes creep, unbidden, in to the work. This was performance that stoically shed a single tear rather than be seen to cry in public. In order to accomplish this, and still be able to break your heart with the beauty of the music, Borok picked up the tempi throughout. His phrasing and creative use of the bow keep Brahms’ long melodic lines spinning. His varied use of vibrato allowed him to pour it on at the right moments while using almost none in repose.
It was a pleasure to hear this sonata in Borok’s hands. While other, more emotional and romantic performances bring a different impression of this sonata, Borok’s modest approach was just as moving and left a lasting impression.