Brahms Goes Baroque: Style Turns Murky As Festival Wanders Afield

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Countertenor Reginald Mobley performed at the Whidbey Island Music Festival. (Photos by David Hundley)

LANGLEY, Wash. — For 17 years, the Whidbey Island Music Festival has filled each summer with chamber music from the Baroque era and beyond. As it moves between venues on the large island located between Port Townsend, Wash., and the Olympic Peninsula, Camano Island, and the mainland north of Seattle, the festival continues under its director, baroque violin, viola, and viola d’amore player Tekla Cunningham. Cunningham, who also serves as concertmaster of Northern California’s American Bach Soloists and orchestra director/concertmaster of Pacific MusicWorks in Seattle, will soon join three other musicians to record new music written by Melia Watras for four instruments, including baroque violin.

The location for the Aug. 14 season finale, Love and Longing: Songs and Chamber Music of Johannes Brahms and Florence Price, was a 70-100 seat, all-black room in the Whidbey Island Center for the Arts in Langley. Situated a few blocks from the city’s historic downtown district, whose shops and art galleries intersperse rainbow Pride flags with lowbrow Americana and questionably fine art, the town’s commercial offerings stood in sharp relief to the concert repertoire.

The afternoon focused on the music of Brahms and Florence Price. Countertenor Reginald Mobley was the soloist in music by both composers.

In the opening selection, Brahms’ Sonata in E-flat major for Violin and Piano, Op.12 (Brahms’ arrangement of one of the sonatas he originally wrote for clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld), Cunningham played a 1746 Venetian Serafin with gut strings and pianist Sheila Weidendorf a beaten up baby grand.

Pianist Sheila Weidendorf and violinist Tekla Cunningham performed a sonata by Brahms.

After the performance, Cunningham noted that the music of Brahms and Price was far afield of the festival’s customary repertoire. Given what we heard, this hardly came as a surprise. Besides her occasional glaring intonation issues in softer passages, Cunningham played in a straight-ahead manner in which, all too frequently, final notes of passages stopped dead in their tracks rather than tapering off. She may have indulged in occasional portamento, but it was so subtle as to leave unaltered the impression that Romanticism played little part in her interpretation. Nor was the sonata uplifted by Weidendorf’s phrase-by-phrase musicianship, which shattered the long arc of Brahms’ music and reflected little sense of the big picture. Some of the most challenging piano passages seemed labored. Disappointing is putting it mildly.

Mobley joined the two women in Brahms’ gorgeous Two Songs for voice, viola and piano, Op. 91. His opening notes were a thing of beauty, but the top of the range sounded dry. Though his sweetness, straight tone, and arresting volume on high may work well in Baroque repertoire, they lacked the liquidity essential to Brahms’ music. The second song, “Gestliches Wiegenlied,” was sung so fast as to lack any sense of nurturing. Only at the very end, when the three musicians consciously slowed down, might anyone who had not read the program notes realized that they were performing a lullaby.

Thankfully, Cunningham came into her own on viola. The tone was full, round, and filled with beauty. Intonation, too, was spot on. Yet I remain unconvinced that her modified early-music approach is what Brahms expected to hear from the gut-stringed instruments of his era.

After intermission, Weidendorf returned to perform three of Brahms’ Intermezzi, Op. 119. Legato passages in the Andantino un poco agitato sounded too percussive and lacked the fluency others bring to Brahms. The conclusion of the Grazioso e giocoso was devoid of sparkle. It was playing some might describe as “pretty.”

Henry Lebedinsky, Reginald Mobley, Tekla Cunninham, and Sheila Weidendorf.

Mobley’s performance of six songs by Price was the concert’s saving grace. “Resignation,” to lyrics by Price herself, was the closest Mobley got to a spiritual. He made the song his own, delivering some of the most moving musicianship of the afternoon. His accompanist, Henry Lebedinsky, recorded Price songs with Mobley for their Grammy-nominated CD and lavished the songs with the same attention that the finest accompanists devote to Schubert lieder.

After “Song to the Dark Virgin,” to poetry by Langston Hughes, Mobley defied expectations. “The White Rose,” to lyrics by John Boyle O’Reilly, would have been welcome on one of Irish tenor John McCormack’s recital programs, and the sentimental “Sunset,” to lyrics by Odessa P. Elder, would have been right at home on the Kate Smith radio hour. This performance, presumably recorded the day before in the far wetter acoustic of the Noorlag Salon, provides a good sense of what we heard.

Price scored another bull’s-eye in her delightful setting of Graham Lee Hemminger’s “Tobacco,” which Mobley and Lebedinsky delivered with appropriate humor. Those who may think that Poulenc’s languorous “Hotel” is the end-all, be-all of cigarette songs must hear this very different little ditty. The final song, Price’s setting of Fannie Carter Woods’ “Out of the South,” was ideally dreamy. It was just beautiful. Had the audience applauded even longer, we might have been treated to yet one more gem by Price.