Pianist Benjamin Hochman made an impressive impact on his first landing in our area. Saturday evening, June 28, he performed the three Brahms Violin Sonatas with his wife, Jennifer Koh. Less than 24 hours later, he joined the Shanghai Quartet for the opening of the 99th Maverick Concerts Season at the Maverick Hall in Woodstock. Most of the concert pianists on our stages today can get around the notes in impressive fashion, and many of them also have fine musical insights. But there are few who can play with consistently beautiful and varied tone the way Hochman does, making his performances a real pleasure.
At Bard, Koh and Hochman closed the 2014 Hudson Valley Chamber Music Circle season. During the first part of the program, the first two Sonatas, I was more impressed with the pianist than the violinist. Hochman devoured Brahms’s tricky writing with ease, making beautiful sounds from the piano all the while. Koh started on a fairly small scale, which is seldom right for Brahms, and her sound was variable, sometimes thin. Although Hochman had the piano lid up and was playing with power, he shouldn’t have been covering the violin, yet sometimes Koh’s part wasn’t coming through as well as it should have. All this changed after intermission, in the Third Violin Sonata. Here the musicians walked the balance tightrope successfully, playing with wide dynamics and great power yet with everything always audible. Maybe the Third Sonata is just Koh’s favorite. (It’s mine.) Or maybe they took a while to get used to the on-stage acoustics at Bard’s Olin Hall, which I’ve been told by musicians can be tricky. Whatever the cause, that Third Sonata was truly thrilling.
The next day, at Maverick, Hochman made his debut in the company of the Shanghai Quartet, which was playing there for the 24th consecutive season. That concert opened with a full-throated, powerful performance of Haydn’s familiar Quartet in D Minor, Op. 76, No. 2, known as the “Fifths” from its opening motif. I think the ensemble used as much power as it would for Beethoven, which was gratifying to hear. The playing had vigor and excellent balance, and in the third movement the peasant dance rhythms were stomped out. Hochman joined the Shanghais for Bright Sheng’s “Dance Capriccio,” an entertaining if unchallenging piece from 2011 based on Sherpa dance rhythms. Coordination seemed impeccable in this tricky music. After intermission, a real treat, as Hochman played Janácek’s “In the Mist,” a very beautiful and mysterious suite. Hochman played it like the masterpiece it is, with exceptionally wide dynamics, obvious comprehension, and gorgeous tone. (Alas, there are no piano recitals at Maverick this season.) Sometimes I wish chamber ensembles wouldn’t stick so much to Dvorák’s Greatest Hits, since there are so many excellent, lesser-known works in his catalog. But I’d never think of complaining about a performance like the Piano Quintet we heard on Sunday. From the relaxed rhythms of the opening moments I knew we were in for a treat. Everyone played with beautiful sound and a wide range of expression, including some more peasant stomping. We even got an encore, the Scherzo of Schumann’s Piano Quintet, which left me hoping for the whole work from these performers next summer. Amazingly, it was the first time Hochman has played with the Shanghai Quartet. The audience was large and enthusiastic.
The music month began for me on Friday, June 6, with a benefit concert at the Kleinert-James Arts Center by soprano Lily Arbisser, mezzo-soprano Hai-Ting Chinn, and pianist Leo Treitler.
It was a delight. Both singers handled a wide variety of material, solo and duet, with great skill and understanding and lovely vocal quality. Treitler may not be a virtuoso but he certainly knows how the music should go and made a strong positive contribution to the performances. It’s a pity this venue doesn’t get used for concerts more often, as it has good sound and an excellent piano.
The following night, the Hudson Valley Chamber Music Circle series opened with four legendary musicians, including the super-legend, pianist Menahem Pressler, a founding member of the great Beaux-Arts Trio and still playing beautifully at 90. He and violinist Jaime Laredo played a beautifully mellow version of Schubert’s Violin Sonata in D, D. 384, which had just the right kinds of balance and sound. Pressler then presented an unprogrammed birthday present to Laredo, a Chopin Nocturne that was simply exquisite. Cellist Sharon Robinson joined Pressler for Beethoven’s Cello Sonata in G Minor, Op. 5, No. 2, played with fluency and a subtle assurance that were treasurable. After intermission, the three were joined by violist Michael Tree, of the now-disbanded Guarnieri Quartet, in Schumann’s Piano Quartet in E Flat, Op. 47. There were moments in this performance where I could have wished for more volatility, but it was always a musical conversation among master players and concluded an evening to treasure.