Sunday, June 10, 2018

Millbrook Independent: Nokuthula Ngwenyama in Brahms Sextets at Bard College

Nokuthula Ngwenyama

June 10, 2018

by Kevin T. McEneaney

The Hudson Valley Chamber Music Circle at Bard College’s Olin Hall offered the program “The Two Glorious Brahms Sextets” which featured Jamie Laredo and Pamela Frank on violins, Nokuthula Ngwenyama and Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt on violas, with Keith Robinson and Sharon Robinson on cellos. Sharon is one of my favorite cello players and it was a treat to hear her play with her very accomplished brother.

Both Brahms string sextets are fairly long and not played that often. I was particularly keen on hearing both at one go, since I have a 1992 EMI cd that appeared to advertise both sextets, but in fact only provided the Scherzo for No. 2 in G major, Op. 36. That was a frustrating annoyance and what better way to solve it than to hear a live performance by truly accomplished players?

Sextet No. 1 in B major, Op. 18, offers a lively tribute to Baroque dance music, with jaunty nods to Bach, Mozart, and Haydn. Layered with variations on infectious dance tunes, it displays varied dynamics in rhythm and volume. The tunes remain memorable and provide great fun for the musicians who exuded that contagious fun as they were playing—the mark of an excellent concert experience for all. Laredo nuanced Telemann and Frank intoned more Mozart, while Stadt shone on first viola. The interplay of sibling cellos delivered an intimate, humorous underpinning of the more cerebral flights of the violins. While I don’t understand how anyone could not like this lively sextet, one might opine that it was slightly simple, except for the concluding Rondo which brought everyone to their feet with vibrant applause and pleasure stamped on their visage.

Op. 36 was a more interesting intellectual endeavor with layered complexity in the adroit interaction of the six instruments that produced unusual combinations of sounds and a textured interplay among instrument that was astonishing. Here Jamie Laredo excelled with lyric intensity as he articulated a voice distinct from the “crowd” that followed and supported him. Not least in that endeavor was Ngwenyama on first viola who offered a complimentary and sometimes challenging sound. 

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