Breathless Brahms From the San Francisco Symphony

David Bratman on May 10, 2010

From almost the moment that guest conductor Christoph Eschenbach struck up Brahms’ Symphony No. 2 with the San Francisco Symphony last Wednesday, it was clear that this was going to be a Brahms of the bright colors. It was set against a lovely recent French work by Marc-André Dalbavie.

After a 20-year struggle to complete his epic First Symphony, Brahms composed his Second with quick fluency the following year. It’s supposed to be his mellow, relaxed, idyllic symphony, but there was nothing mellow about this rendition. Even the horns, characteristically so cool despite the big workout Brahms gives them, were heavy and brassy this time, and the winds made a few unfortunate splats.

Eschenbach led the work in a breathless style, not so much fast as hurried. The themes tumbled over each other with no sense of spaciousness. This procedure sounded very odd in the first movement, in particular, yet it did become appropriate for the inherently more-rushed last movement. The entire symphony was performed as if it was its own finale.

Suddenly, at the recurrences of themes late in each movement, Eschenbach would slow down, imposing tempo changes with a whim of iron. The returned theme would not be so much significantly slower as it would be more tender, and laden with long, pregnant pauses, imbuing it with an intense feeling of nostalgia. At one such moment, the violas made a sort of creaking sound, and an image came to mind of sitting back in a deep leather chair, striking a pose of contemplation.

Trunk Concerto

Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2 has an entirely different history than Brahms’ symphony with the same number. It’s what literary authors call a “trunk work,” written earlier than No. 1 and held back because the composer didn’t consider it as good as its competition. Consequently, it’s not surprising that this is the least-played of all five canonical Beethoven piano concertos. That doesn’t make it any less than a charming, somewhat Mozartean work.

David Fray is a French pianist, here making his San Francisco Symphony debut. Although he is 28, he looks and acts younger. He is tall and thin, with long hair, as pale as a teen idol vampire, and while waiting for his entrances he sits fidgeting at the piano, as if he were a bored adolescent. Fortunately his performance, if less than utterly captivating, was further away from the boring. He played with nuance and a variability of touch, indulging in some crotchety-sounding bass lines, and was well matched with Eschenbach’s conducting, more straightforward here than in the Brahms.

To match with the hallowed and hoary names of Brahms and Beethoven, Eschenbach began the program with the first local performance of La Source d’un regard, a work less than three years old, by the French composer Marc-André Dalbavie. As a sample of what some composers, particularly Francophone ones, have been writing lately, Dalbavie’s 20-minute work resembles Zipangu by Claude Vivier, which the Symphony played in early April. They’re both examples of what’s known as “spectralism” — largely static chunks of soundscape, rendered resonant (instead of piercing) by careful attention to harmonic relationships, particularly by exploiting overtones.

The difference is that Vivier’s work, though less eventful on the surface, was more successful as music. Dalbavie began with bright staccato chords shining with tubular bells on top, not all of them played entirely together, though they were evidently supposed to be. Tiny flutterings from brass and winds zoomed quickly over long-held shimmerings from the strings, rather in the mode of György Ligeti. Later, neoprimitive brass eruptions covered a landscape of soft, mournful, descending string lines as if from Henryk Górecki. The work ended with an unexpectedly amusing, sudden, quiet “plop.”

Dalbavie creates a lovely sound, and his musical landscape is always clear and uncluttered — too uncluttered, perhaps, to attempt striking combinations of timbre. Yet the music had no ability to be entrancing, which is the one capacity that a static, contemplative work of this kind must have. Dalbavie does only one thing at once, but he tries to do too many of them in succession, and the spell of the music has no chance to take over.