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Brahms in Norwegian

It had been too long since I had enjoyed a concert at the National Gallery of Art... the last time having been Alessandra Marc's performance (see my Washington Post review and the Ionarts reviews). The crowd at the free Sunday concerts (starting at 6:30 pm since this season) is more diverse, younger, and probably more devoted than at many fancy pay-for events. The quality of the performances, meanwhile, isn't an iota lesser. [You can find the Beaux Arts Trio (today at the LoC), the Juilliard Quartet (Friday 17th, LoC), the Mendelssohn Piano Trio (NGA, January 9th), as well as Sabine Mayer, Leila Josefowitz, the St. Petersburg Quartet, the Keller Quartet, and the Takács Quartet (in February and March) at these events, which should be saying enough.]

available at Amazon
E.Grieg, Violin Sonatas no. 1–3,
H.Kraggerud, H.Kjekshus

Sunday, December the 12th (see the Program Notes), it was the violinist/pianist team of Henning Kraggerud and Helge Kjekshus playing all three Brahms Sonatas for Violin and Piano (not "Violin Sonatas," as I am always tempted to abbreviate misleadingly). With utmost feeling and a calm, serene pace the Norwegian Duo (presented in cooperation with the Norwegian Embassy and their "A Norwegian Christmas" celebration at Union Station) emphasized the Romantic and luscious side of Brahms over his structured and formal one, much to the benefit of the work, I think. It was also the only tempo that the acoustics allow, given the West Garden Court's difficult nature. Mr. Kjekshus, too, adapted visibly and audibly to the reverberating hall, trying to stay off the pedal as much as possible and thereby contributing tremendously to a very enjoyable performance.

The boyish face of Mr. Kraggerud belying his 31 years (he might well be 21, were it not for the mature handling of the music), he steered his colleague's supportive and responsive playing around to great combined success. (Tuning between movements, though, I like even less than applause, and with all due respect to a performer's sense of his instrument, I believe it is more for good luck than out of absolute necessity.)

Henning Kraggerud, who has played with a Who's Who of pianists (Kovacevic, Andsnes, and Argerich, to name just three), brought his joyful touch to the speedier second Brahms sonata as well. The immediacy of his communicative performance made up more than enough for the occasional flat notes of which there were precious few in any case. The D minor Sonata (No. 3) with its lyrical introduction (unfortunately, I was once told the "words" to the opening phrase, a joke that has never allowed me to hear it quite with the same ears...) was every bit the beaut it is in these four Norwegian hands, especially when the performance really woke up at the energetic outburst of the otherwise rather tranquil Allegro. The second movement, Adagio, brings out Brahms at his most accessible and perhaps even inspired. The successful welding of structure to emotion is a boon to all those who need their Romanticism with a safety net. Not to disparage any lovers of Brahms (I am myself among them), but his music is a bit akin to taunting a lion at the zoo, safely through the bars... the thrill of playing blackjack with pennies, sex with the lights out.

Also: The third movement was exquisite! Sparks flew in the last movement (Presto Agitato) and had the audience on its feet. The sensitive playing of Mr. Kjekshus, achieving as good a balance as possible in the venue, was the linchpin to an evening that allowed Brahms, more so than either performer, to shine. The delightful and soothing encore was Norwegian composer Johan Halvorsen's Veslemoys Sungh (Maiden's Song).

P.S. To hear Herr Kraggerud in action again, Washingtonianites won't have to wait too long, either. He will appear in May at the brand new Strathmore Hall in Bethesda with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. To hear them on record, try their Naxos traversal of Grieg's three (one famous, two sadly underrated) Sonatas for Violin and Piano!

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