One of my most cherished interviews was during a private breakfast with violinist Gil Shaham back in the 1990s, when he was already an established, world-touring concert artist.
Although he fairly bubbled with enthusiasm, it was hard to get Shaham to talk about himself. He would much rather talk about the music he had a thirst to play, then and in the future. And that morning he kept returning to a special desire to organize chamber music programs of widely varying content.
In retrospect, that ambition seems to have flowered fully in the ingenious all-Brahms program he and six colleagues brought Tuesday to the Mary Seaton Room on the Buffalo Chamber Music Society series. On this occasion, Shaham's "Friends" were pianist Akira Eguchi, violinist Adele Anthony (in private life, Mrs. Shaham), violists Masao Kawasaki and Dov Scheindlin, and cellists Jian Wang and Alisa Weilerstein.
Their program opened with Shaham and Eguchi in Brahms Violin Sonata No. 3 in D minor. Those whose fondest hope was to revel in Shaham's artistry should have had a field day here because it was all-encompassing musicianship rather than sheer virtuosity that both he and Eguchi applied to this darkly radiant sonata.
In the searching, probing assertiveness of the first movement there was a wonderful give-and-take relationship between the violin and piano, each deferring to the other in their important big lines, but keeping the form and content of the music quite intact. The crown of the work is the profoundly spiritual slow movement, played with exquisite warmth and incredible coloration in the violin's almost inaudible pianissimo passages. The angular and highly rhythmic scherzo featured textures that were almost pointillist in places, and the boldly assertive Presto finale brought the work to a roiling yet highly lyrical conclusion.
The same duo came right back with the unusual offering of six of Brahms' 21 "Hungarian Dances," oddly enough with all but one in either D Major or D minor. Based on the spirit of Gypsy music but still bearing the Brahms stamp, the successive pieces offered a wide range of emotions and expressiveness, with Shaham and Eguchi giving each small detail exactly the right weighting and prominence. The order of the pieces presented four of the less familiar dances first then satisfyingly concluded with No. 4 and No. 2 whose melodies were immediately identifiable. The concert concluded with the youthful Sextet in B-Flat, Op. 18 for strings, with Shaham stepping inside to play second violin, thus demonstrating his pleasure in viewing the music from within rather than always being the leading voice. This is music that abounds in genial warmth, softness of texture and easily flowing lyric lines that radiate a wholly untroubled musical world. With the exception of some cello-heavy moments in the slow movement, the performance faithfully captured the music's openness and endlessly rewarding lyricism.
It should be noted that the overflow crowd greeted each of the three works with standing, cheering ovations.
Gil Shaham and Friends
Tuesday night in Mary Seaton Room of Kleinhans Music Hall.