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Saturday, October 24, 2015

Concert Review: Brahms, More Brahms, Et Cetera

The New York Philharmonic plays...you know.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Brahmsian: Russian conductor Semyon Bychkov.
Photo by Chris Lee © 2015 The New York Philharmonic.
The modern symphony orchestra cannot survive without the music of Johannes Brahms.

On Friday morning, the New York Philharmonic and guest conductor Semyon Bychkov gave the third of four concerts this week focused almost entirely on Brahms' music. The performance opened with a modern work: the Brahms-Fantasie by contemporary German composer Detlev Glanert, followed by two major works from opposite ends of Brahms' career: the Double Concerto (which would be his last major orchestral work) and the First of his four symphonies.

Mr. Glenert's work (subtitled "A Heliogravure for Orchestra") is from 2012. It uses the distinctive opening rhythmic figure of the first movement of the Symphony No. 1 as a starting point, building a complicated set of variations on this simple cell that would have made its original creator proud. Mr. Bychkov drew taut, razor-sharp playing from the expanded Philharmonic forces, letting the increasingly ornate variations flow smoothly forward. The rhythm was stretched, reversed and inverted, serving as a fertile and inspiring seed for the whole work.

At the work's climax, a rising series of chords evoked the opening of Parsifal by Brahms' rival Richard Wagner. It was an unexpected touch, and a valiant attempt to settle the gulf between these two men, a gulf fuelled by the Wagner-hating Viennese critic Eduard Hanslick who set Brahms up as the alternative to Wagner's own cult of personality. If Mr. Glenert indeed included these chords as a deliberate quote (they were followed by a falling interval and a Tristan-esque dissonance) he should be commended for his innovation and insight.

Brahms was Germany's sober answer to the Romantic extravagances of the 19th century, a rock-solid traditionalist who carved his own path and also laid the ground-work for the music of the 20th century. His musical output is both dense and rewarding, rich in melody and thick in orchestration, with a solidity to his writing that is belied by occasional (if rare) excursions into musical humor.

His Double Concerto was next, featuring violinist Lisa Batiashvili and cellist Gautier Capuçon as the work's soloists. This concerto is unusual in that it emphasizes cooperation between the two soloists. The cello takes the more prominent part, but both musicians played with great beauty and spirit in their individual solos, paired unison passages and moments when their instrumental lines twined and intermingled. The finale, where Brahms indulges his love of folk music was a splendid dance for both players.

The Symphony No. 1 is the heavyweight of the Brahms catalogue, a ponderous and meaty work that was subject to many false starts, revisions and rejections by its creator. Strings, horns and pounding timpani established the somber mood and thematic material, working through complicated transitions to reach the second subject and an answering chorale that is one of the glories of the repertory. The strings took the lead in the following Andante, playing with lyric earnestness over a pulsing rhythm in the low woodwinds. An eloquent oboe solo was a highlight here, earnest and heartfelt over the sighing violins.

The Allegretto was anchored around the sweet tone of the clarinet playing over plucked strings: Brahms at his most playful and lyrical as the gloom finally started to lift. The finale, with its slow introduction and triumphant close was an exercise in patience as Mr. Bychkov led the beginning very slowly. When the big theme finally cut loose, the Philharmonic responded with an energy and ferocity of  that has been absent for much of this season.

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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.