Lucerne’s annual Piano festival continues to attract a mixed public, and by extending the dates and offering 13 concerts this November, the festival’s attendance grew to some 17,000 visitors. Its nine-day run ended with a chamber music matinée devoted entirely to Johannes Brahms, whose works were performed by pianist Lars Vogt in small configurations he accompanied as an equal partner.

Lars Vogt © Felix Broede
Lars Vogt
© Felix Broede

Violinist Antje Weithaas and Vogt performed the Violin Sonata no. 1 in G major first, a piece Brahms composed in 1878/79 on the shores of the Wörthersee in southern Austria. It was an area whose natural beauty and “abundance of melodies” he found rapturous. In his Regenlied (Rainsong) from an earlier song cycle, the composer had drawn on his friend Klaus Groth’s lyrics: “The soul breathes openly / Like the flowers, drunk with fragrance / Drowning in the dew of the Heavens”. Based on similar sentiment, the violin sonata is often referred to as the Regen-Sonata.

Weithaas showed a stunning gift for the nuances of the piece; on the heels of a bold and demonstrative pizzicato, she could render a whisper that felt like an extended silver thread. Further, she used her whole body to her advantage – curling like an athlete over her instrument, shooting up straight for emphasis, twisting towards the piano to share Vogt’s cues − resonating almost as if she were part of the music. She also used the violin as a conversationalist; posing this or that question with a musical phrase for Vogt to answer. That interchange between the piano’s strong presence and the violin’s gentle song – even as they overlap – is pivotal to the piece, and was as certain here as the season’s rains.

In her Lucerne festival debut, cellist Tanja Tetzlaff joined in for the 1889 version of the Piano Trio no. 1 in B major that followed. Vogt pushed the two strings a fair bit at the start of the Allegro, driving tempi that were just a tad faster than theirs, before all three settled nicely into what I consider the most beautiful of the Brahms’ piano trios. The upper bout of Tetzlaff’s fine cello had the color of molten gold, and her technique was equally sovereign; her fingers seemed entirely at ease even in the most complicated of passages. Yet I had to depend entirely on the vigorous shaking of her head to see that she felt the intensity the music conveyed. For while an elegant figure on stage, she seemed cautious with any facial expression.

In the Scherzo, Vogt’s heavy downbeat a few measures into the movement was bombastic, but he moderated it moments later with a tinkling of what could be described as a stellar visitation. In the soothing Adagio, the solo cello showed a range that varied masterfully between the extremes of sonorous and delicate, and Vogt’s piano went on to be as sweet as to rock a baby to sleep, before the tumultuous Finale.

After the break, Florian Donderer, viola, joined the configuration for the Piano Quartet no. 3 in C minor whose moderately paced melody in the Allegro non troppo suddenly explodes into fireworks. All four instruments mastered timely attacks, and Donderer’s solo was particularly lovely. By alternating a repetitive hunting theme with a likeable melody, the Scherzo gave the cello widespread variations, but the most perfect harmonies came in the quartet’s Adagio, where each of the strings picked up its voice from its neighbour, and both the viola and cello’s pizzicato were pitted against the violin’s sublimely fluid line.

Nearing the end of the performance, there was also an unassuming little drama beneath the artists on the podium floor: Vogt’s left foot beat like a small power drill while his right drove the pedal; Donderer’s patent leather shoes danced to his bow-work, and both women players paced their scores by sliding and tapping their low heels. Eye-level with the stage from my seat in row 12, I took even greater delight in the Brahms for the naive ballet of those bumping black shoes.