Thursday 16 May 2024

Göttingen 1853: Johannes Brahms & Joseph Joachim, a meeting of musical minds evoked

Aula of Georg-August Universität, Göttingen  (Photo: Stefan Flöper / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0,
Aula of Georg-August Universität, Göttingen  (Photo: Stefan Flöper / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Bach, Joachim, Mozart, Handel, Beethoven;  Shunske Sato, Shuann Chai, Wolfgang Sandberger; Internationale Händel Festspiele Göttingen at Aula of Georg-August Universität
Reviewed 13 May 2024

Brahms and Joseph Joachim spent a musical Summer together in 1853 in Göttingen and this event imaginatively evoked the music those two young men played together

In 1853, 20-year-old Johannes Brahms was hired as a pianist by Hungarian violinist Eduard Remeny for a concert tour. In mid-May they are in Hanover and visit violinist Joseph Joachim, the 22-year-old concert-master of the Hanover Court Orchestra. Joachim used his concert-free Summer months to improve his education by attending lectures at the university in Göttingen (then part of the Kingdom of Hanover). When Brahms and Remeny parted company, Brahms wrote to Joachim suggesting a visit and for one month during the Summer, Brahms stayed with Joachim in Göttingen and the two young men made music togethere.

At the Internationale Händel Festspiele Göttingen, the event Göttingen 1853: On the trail of Joseph Joachim on 13 May 2024 evoked that musical meeting. In the Aula of Georg-August Universität, Shunske Sato (violin) and Shuann Chai (piano) played the Chaconne from Bach's Partita No. 2, Joachim's Romanze Op.2 No. 1, Mozart's Sonata in B K454, Handel's Sonata in A K 361 and Beethoven's Sonata No. 47 in A "Kreuzer/Bridgetower", whist Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Sandberger gave a talk on the subject.

The Aula is a handsome early 19th century hall, given to the university to celebrate its centenary by William IV, King of Hanover and King of Great Britain. The hall's rear wall was hung with portraits of George II, George IV and William IV, plus a bust of George III, all Kings of Hanover and Kings of Great Britain, and portraits of Ernest Augustus, King of Hanover and Duke of Cumberland (Queen Victoria's uncle), and Emperor Wilhelm I of Prussia, reflecting Göttingen's position as part of the Kingdom of Hanover and the transfer of power to Prussia as part of the unification of Germany.

Chai played a handsome Viennese piano of the period and Sato, former artistic director and concert-master of the Netherlands Bach Society, played a period-appropriate violin. But what period though? After the interval, before the Handel sonata, Sato played a passage from the sonata in Baroque style on his Baroque instrument, and then in 19th-century style on the instrument he was using for the concert, contrasting correct 18th-century style in Handel with the way Joachim might have played it. The result was illuminating. Throughout the evening, we noticed Sato's discreet use of portamento, his sweet singing tone, and his inclusion of vibrato in his expressive armoury.

Sato began with the Chaconne from Bach's Partita No. 2, a special work in Joachim's repertoire; he was one of the first violinists to perform this music without an added accompaniment. Sato made a very full sound, full of vigour and strenuous energy. This was about Sato's expressive phrasing rather than any underlying dance-like element, with vibrant tone and a wonderful range of colours.

Next came Joachim's own Romanze for violin and piano, a work that was new in 1853. It was a somewhat salon-ish piece with Sato's elegant violin line over a flowing, busy piano. The piano's tone was light, silvery almost. The music had some gypsy-ish moments but also evocations of Robert Schumann (another Joachim admirer). Joachim and Clara Schumann would have a long musical partnership (including playing the Beethoven sonatas) and Clara's own late romances for violin and piano were written for Joachim.

The first half ended with Mozart's Sonata in B, written in 1784 for an Italian violinist in Vienna. It began with strong violin gestures echoed by more delicate piano responses. Sato's violin line sang over Chai's silvery passage-work, yet both brought strong character to the music. In the second movement it was Sato's interesting use of portamento and articulation that caught my attention and the contrasts in timbre between the instruments. For the finale, Sato and Chai formed a fine double act, both performing with style and character.

During the interval we had interesting conversations with two local audience members, both proud of the university's rich history and able to illuminate to the complexities of the interlinking of Hanoverian and British history.

Handel's Sonata in A was written around 1725/26 and published as the composer's Opus 2. Both Brahms and Joachim were interested in 'Early' music, it was a thread that would would through much of Brahms' compositional output. Here, Sato and Chai gave us an evocation of the style of performance of Handel that Brahms and Joachim might have given. 

The opening movement featured Sato's elegant, vibrato-coloured singing tone and Chai's stylish piano accompaniment. The Allegro was full of vigour, both performers giving a full tone as the movement progressed. The short third movement was plangently affecting whilst the final gigue had a perky charm and was definitely a dance.

It was Joachim's espousal of Beethoven's Violin Concerto that put the work on the map. Brahms, Robert and Clara Schumann all heard and appreciated Joachim's performances of the work. The 12-year-old Joachim had first played Beethoven's Violin Concerto in London in 1844 with Mendelssohn conducting!

Here, we had Beethoven's Sonata in A major, premiered by Beethoven and Joseph Bridgetower, dedicated to Bridgetower, then rededicated to Kreuzer, who never played the work and reputedly disliked it. The sonata opened with strong violin gestures and gentler piano responses, despite the drama and the flurries of notes, we noticed Sato's sweet tone and the soft-edge bell-like timbre of the piano. For the slow movement, Sato's use of portamento and articulation to colour and shape the music was notable, and he had a finely graceful way with those flurries of notes. The final movement was rhythmically tight and crisp, with strong accents; overall, elegance was to the fore rather than fire.

This was quite a substantial event. Wolfgang Sandberger's spoken contribution was significant and there were moments when the evening hovered uncertainly between lecture and recital, but perhaps my limited German played a role this. What was not in doubt was the way all concerned were keen to evoke for the audience, that fascinating meeting of musical minds in Göttingen in 1853.

The audience was most responsive, so Sato and Chai gave us a substantial encore, the slow movement of a further Mozart violin sonata.

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Elsewhere on this blog

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    • Göttingen 1853: Johannes Brahms & Joseph Joachim, a meeting of musical minds evoked - concert review
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