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Thursday, November 27, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 20.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra: Toil and Trouble

On Jan. 18, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra will start the New Year with two robust masterpieces - Franz Schubert's "String Quartet No. 14 in D Minor" ("Death and the Maiden") arranged by Mahler, and Johannes Brahms' "Double Concerto for Violin and Cello in A Minor." The evening's lighter but no less challenging fare will be Rodion Shchedrin's "Chamber Suite," composed in 1961. Shchedrin weaves Russian folklore with colorful orchestration and creates a soundscape that's both meditative and edgy.

Both the Schubert and Brahms pieces echo emotionally hard times. Schubert was grappling with serious health issues and Brahms was trying to mend a relationship on the skids. Schubert died at 31, two years after the premiere of his quartet in 1826. History isn't sure whether the concerto that Brahms wrote for his friend revived their friendship, but his gift was accepted nonetheless.

A year before Schubert wrote his "Death and the Maiden" quartet, doctors told him he had syphilis, a death sentence in those days. Schubert pours his angst into the quartet until it threatens to burst from its measures. His polyphonic writing makes for dense textures, but he combines them with sunny melodies that float effortlessly. The second movement is a set of variations based on the piano prelude to his earlier song "Death and the Maiden," which he set to a poem by Matthias Claudius. The composer is in his element in this movement with his favorite combination - song and poetry. Because of the emphasis on the offbeat, asymmetry permeates the bones of the third movement before the final movement goes like the wind. Its wired frenzy reminds me of Schubert's 1815 lied "Der Erlkönig," about a father and his dying son who race on horseback to find a doctor while Death rides behind them.

Mahler wrote the orchestral arrangement of the quartet in 1894. When he premiered the second movement, critics were incensed that he dared to alter Schubert's work. The criticism stung, and Mahler never performed the other three movements. The score didn't surface again until long after Mahler's death when his daughter found it in his personal effects.

Sixty years passed between Schubert's quartet and the premiere of Brahms' double concerto in 1887, but you will be struck more by their similarities than their differences. Both start alike with two declamations from the orchestra, one questioning and the other definitive. Both use neat, logical sonata form, and both are written in simple keys.

Brahms wrote the concerto for his violinist friend Joseph Joachim and Robert Hausmann, the cellist in Joachim's quartet. Joachim and Brahms had been friends for years before Joachim cut off the relationship when Brahms took sides with his wife during their divorce proceedings. The concerto was a peace offering, and the two instruments interact in the way Brahms hoped the friendship would become.

Cello and violin dovetail, finishing each other's thoughts, and then play gritty, challenging passages in unison. In the second movement, the play between them is sweet and relaxed, like two friends talking about old times.

Guest artists Judith Ingolfsson on violin and Mark Kosower on cello are sure to complement each other. Ingolfsson's quick-as-lightning technique and Kosower's deeply passionate playing will bring unique luster to this Brahmsian fantasy.

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