Orli Shaham offers superb program of Brahms and works inspired by him

June 04, 2015
By Tim Sawyier
Orli Shaham performed a program centered on music of Brahms Sunday afternoon at Chicago's Symphony Center. Photo: Christian Steiner

Orli Shaham performed a program centered on music of Brahms Sunday afternoon at Symphony Center. Photo: Christian Steiner

The final piano event of the season for Symphony Center Presents in Chicago offered a recital by Orli Shaham Sunday afternoon. The program was comprised of works from her new CD, Brahms Inspired, featuring works by the composer along with others that influenced or pay homage to him. If Sunday’s recital is any indicator, it should be a stellar recording.

At the heart of Shaham’s recital were two late Brahms sets, the Ops. 118 and 119 Piano Pieces, which closed each half and showed Shaham at her very best.

The opening Intermezzo of Op. 118 was vigorous and expansive, and the tender A Major that follows played with delicate vulnerability.  Shaham brought aggressive poise to the Ballade in G Minor, employing intelligent rubato. The Intermezzo in F Minor scintillated with rhapsodic ardor, and Shaham imbued the Romanze in F Major’s hymn-like main theme with restrained nobility. Op. 118’s closing Intermezzo in E-flat Minor revolves around quotations of the Dies Irae chant, suffused in highly chromatic harmonies and offset by a martial episode. Shaham brought a controlled order to these elements, creating a sense of the disordered yet obsessive thought of intense mourning.

Shaham’s fluency in this repertoire was just as impressive in Op. 119. She brought a simple melancholy to the opening of the B Minor Intermezzo, and elegantly wove its transition to a warmer, more supple atmosphere. The Intermezzo in E Minor was playful and the contrasting section had the authoritative affection of a parent reasoning with an adolescent. Shaham channeled Brahms’ time as a “dance hall” pianist in her freewheeling rendition of the euphoric Intermezzo in C Major, while still allowing its more refined moments to convey Brahms’ ambivalence about his time spent there. In the closing Rhapsody in E-flat Major, Shaham filled the hall with both force and ease, and despite a little fuzz of extra notes here and there, navigated the work’s technical demands admirably.

The recital began with six-movement works of Bach and Schoenberg. Shaham took a highly Romantic approach to Bach’s Partita No. 1, using the same rubato that enhanced her Brahms readings, which here, along with a thundering low register, made for a slightly affected impression. Schoenberg’s Six Little Piano Pieces, Op. 19, however, were a study in elegance in Shaham’s hands, as she infused each succinct gesture with its own meaning.

The second half opened with Schubert’s Impromptu in G-Flat Major, Op. 90 No. 3, of which Shaham gave a direct, no-nonsense rendition.

Two pieces commissioned by Shaham in her Brahms explorations followed, Bruce Adolphe’s My Inner Brahms (An Intermezzo) and Avner Dorman’s After Brahms: Three Intermezzos.

Adolphe’s contribution most clearly related to Op. 118, No. 6, also flowing from a single, recurring melodic germ but less through-composed and assertively set in the composer’s dissonant idiom.

The first of the three movements of the Avner took its cue from Op. 118, No. 1, directly quoting that work but subtly adding chromatic colorations, culminating in a  coda of atomic force. The second movement, based on Op. 119, No. 1, had a soulful, almost blues feel. The closing Adagio espressivo movement, the only completely original one, was ironically the most Brahmsian of all, beginning with a simple, understated theme that gradually accumulates dissonant harmonization. Shaham was a spectacular advocate for these works, bringing her virtuosity and intelligent musicianship to bear throughout.

For an encore Shaham offered Schumann’s Romanze in F-sharp Major, Op. 28 No. 2, also from her upcoming release. While not the most bravura selection she might have chosen, it brought an additional dimension to the afternoon’s reflection on Brahms, invoking the complex dynamics of the composer’s relationships with Robert and Clara Schumann.

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