As New York City emerged from pandemic life, the joy of hearing real, physically present live music again was tempered only by the frustration of imperfect amplification. This entirely Brahms program was presented by the Chamber Music Society at Lincoln Center on an outdoor stage built for a summer concert series. But due to the placement and mixing of the microphone, the left hand of the piano and the clarity in the lower register of the cello were both lost in Brahms’ Cello Sonata in F major. Despite these limitations, Paul Watkins (cello) and Michael Brown (piano) performed with beautiful nuances and perfectly synchronized rubato, especially taking their time gently at the climax of the phrases. I enjoyed Watkins’ varied and judicious use of vibrato in the second movement. The duo performed the Allegro passionato with a fast tempo, good practice sense and a tender second theme. The final movement started out with elegance and rhythm and was a joy, although I felt like hearing the music inside or with a different mix of amplification, because even though the upper registers of the cello sounded good, I did. wanted richer colors and greater depth of the C and G strings.
Brahms’ Piano Quartet in G minor followed, and Gilles Vonsattel’s masterful piano overture was fascinating. The intense and passionate playing of violinist Ida Kavafian led the ensemble in a dramatic performance that won over the listener. Here, the individual miking of the instruments was more successful and allowed the violist to be heard even in unison passages – Matthew Lipman playing with fierce articulation and passion. Throughout the work, the compelling transitions of the ensemble and the reflected harmonic changes captivated the ear. The opening of the second movement was mysterious but not too dark, especially in Kavafian’s playing – and the rich textures of the Andante gave way to an exuberant C major section. The final Rondo was delightfully played. Despite the occasional siren in the distance and the frustration of the amplification, it was indeed wonderful to hear great music again performed live by great performers.