By Mike Dunham
I do not recall ever seeing the Brahms F Minor Piano Sonata on a program in Anchorage before Sunday’s edition of the Alaska Airlines Autumn Classics chamber music series. The gargantuan piece is too much for most audiences and all but a smattering of pianists. Happily, I had a seat at Grant Hall when everything converged.
Ian Fountain’s appearance calls to mind a 30-something Harry Potter, and his musical magic is all real. The sonata demands hands that — among other tricks — leap from one end of the keyboard to the other and nail complex chords with every pounce. Fountain achieved the physical precision with a flawlessness few could match.
But the youthful composition also requires relentless intellectual attention. It has no passages of easy melody or rhythmic repetition that might give the performer’s mind a moment to wander; loose track of what’s happening in any of Brahms’ early pieces and it becomes a mass of random lunging. Frankly I got a little nervous when Fountain repeated the first section of the opening movement with essentially the same nuance as he gave the initial playing. (This is no place to get into rival philosophies over how to repeat the same music within a composition, but if anyone else is passionate about such things, I’ll gladly entertain arguments below.)
The nervousness was unnecessary. Fountain had a clear trajectory in mind and maintained the course climbing from one high point to the next. In the second movement, for example, he brought the music to a whisper as quiet as tissue falling on carpet, then, in a matter of two breaths, surged into fortissimo emotion with as finely controlled and natural a crescendo as I can imagine. He held the final chord of the movement in a lovely fade that lasted maybe 15 seconds, the Steinway still humming long after his hands quit moving. I only wish that someone had shut off the hall’s fairly noisy ventilation system; it would have been worth a little sweat to hear how long it took that enchanted sound to dissolve into silence.
The second half of the concert featured series founder Paul Rosenthal on first violin, Sarah Kapustin on second, violist Marcus Thompson and cellist Eugene Osadchy in Mozart’s Quartet in G Major, K. 387. The ensemble particularly shined in the counterpoint of the mind-boggling minuet and the finale.
It's one thing to have musicians of this caliber deliver their best; it's another to have an audience that can appreciate it. The Autumn Classics crowd is among the most dedicated around. No cell phone rang, no watch chirped, no chatter interrupted the conversation between performers and listeners. The Brahms sonata is 35 minutes long, twice as long as, say, Beethoven's "Pathetique;" that's the other reason why we don't hear it much. But patience was rewarded on Sunday and, safe to say, fans will be back next weekend as Fountain joins the others in three Brahms Piano Quartets.
Programs will take place at 8 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, and 4 p.m. on Sunday in Grant Hall. Tickets at CenterTix.net