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Monday, March 2, 2015

Concert Review: Brothers in Brahms

The Vienna Philharmonic plays all four Brahms symphonies.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Conductor Daniele Gatti led the Vienna Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall.
Photo from the conductor's website DanieleGatti.Eu
For this year's visit to Carnegie Hall, the Vienna Philharmonic chose to devote itself to the music of Johannes Brahms. The first two concerts featured the four symphonies under the baton of Daniele Gatti, an Italian conductor known for his soulful interpretations of Wagner and habit of conducting without the benefit of a written score.

Mr. Gatti began the first concert with Symphony No. 3, bringing out the bold colors in the opening bars. This movement (and this symphony) is essentially a long argument between a descending and ascending figure, as Brahms works to resolve the disparity in a long development section. Mr. Gatti urged his players forward, but the opening lacked drama and drive.

The Andante put the horns and woodwinds in the limelight, particularly the old-style oboes and clarinet that form the sweet core of this orchestra's sound. The Poco Allegretto was mournful, with dark tones in cellos and basses answering the rest of the orchestra in the "falling" figure. In the most intricate passages of the finale, Mr. Gatti's choice to work without a written score undermined he performance, as two string sections collided gently, righted themselves and moved forward to successfully finish the piece.

Pounding timpani and a potent string tremolo opened Symphony No. 1, a rich feast of Romantic thought filtered through  Brahms' rigorous Classical style. That design came out in the potent opening Allegro and the rich slow movement that followed, showcasing the winds again and the Vienna horns. The short movement led to the dramatic finale, with the low brass supporting the horns and trumpets in a triumphant final chorale. The appreciative audience was then treated to an encore, the Scherzo from Mendelssohn's A Midsummer Night's Dream. This bit of whimsy was a welcome contrast to the heavy profundity of the Brahms, and showed Mr. Gatti's versatility as a conductor.

Profundity was back on display on Saturday night, as Mr. Gatti conducted the opening Allegro of the Symphony No. 2 in a performance that was torturously slow. At twenty-five minutes, this was ten minutes longer than most performances, and had little to do with the marked tempo.  As the performance continued, the meaning of this bizarre interpretation became clear. Mr. Gatti took the next three movements at close-to-normal speeds, as if to present a counter-argument to his slow opening. The finale was a welcome payoff, a firm and showy performance from the Vienna brass.

The Symphony No. 4 in E minor is Brahms' last, a complex and progressive work that looks forward to the 20th century by embracing musical forms from the 18th. In the first movement, short motifs intersected and argued, tossed from instrument to instrument in a complex dance. Mr. Gatti and the Vienna players seemed to stop time in the Andante, led by a sober and considered horn solo. The incisive Allegro Giocoso was brisk and bold, with bright colors lifting the gloom.

The finale of the Fourth may be Brahms' most memorable movement, a chaconne (ground bass) of eight notes that serves as the launchpad for a vast set of variations. The Vienna players created a transparent sound here  Short musical motifs interacted and argued, with the Vienna players creating a transparent texture that brought out the  detail in the orchestra, ending this marathon of complex symphonies on a glowing note.

In Brahms' lifetime, the city of Vienna was a musical battleground, with one group championing the "music of the future" of Richard Wagner and the other choosing Brahms as the representative of classical tradition. On Saturday night, Mr. Gatti chose to settle this old argument with a Wagner encore: the prelude to Act III of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. The old-fashioned chorale for brass, based on the composer Hans Sachs' own setting of a Lutheran hymn, suggested that Brahms and Wagner might not have been so different after all.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.