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Hard Nut? Consider It Cracked

May 13, 2008

Symphony aficionados seldom get a chance to hear two performances of the Brahms Second Piano Concerto so close to each other. Last month it was performed in Oakland. And now, to celebrate the 175th anniversary of Brahms' birth, the San Francisco Symphony and Michael Tilson Thomas decided to do things right and put on a festival that offered both piano concertos along with two other major works, including the Fourth Symphony and the Requiem. Together with various chamber works prefacing some of the concerts, it promises to be a rich feast indeed.
Brahms composed the gigantic concerto in B flat long after he had stopped playing in public. But, so the story goes, he once transposed the entire piano part up a half step because the instrument had gone flat! (I guess the tuner had gone home.) But even played as written, this is the mother of all piano concertos. And though it "lies better" under the hands than his first concerto, it can still intimidate all but the most intrepid players.

Leif Ove Andsnes confessed to having practiced the piece intensively over his recent vacation, calling it a "hard nut to crack." (See last week's feature.) Well, crack it he did, and what he found inside was a dazzling array of intricate passages, iridescent strands of melody, and not a single morsel out of place. This was the Olympian Brahms, with scales like lightning bolts, fiendish double notes at top speed, and all coming out sounding so "simple," as the composer jokingly described the first movement.

Striking just the right note of compliance and strength in the opening duet with the wonderful French horn, played by Robert Ward, Andsnes showed who was in charge. And, mighty as the orchestra could be, he was able to say, "Bring it on."

The second movement gives the pianist no chance to rest, but forges on even more passionately. In the middle there is a cadenzalike passage in which Brahms strews his half-step motive all over the keyboard, in octaves, thirds, and sixths, and in both parallel and contrary motion ... then asks that it all be played in a whisper. Andsnes proved his fearlessness in this movement, and from that point the concerto built to its most powerful climax.
Creeping Into a Still Place
The piano reenters the concerto in the slow movement, with the most mysterious entrance in the entire literature. In these unison octaves Brahms expresses an awed (and odd) stillness, leaving listeners to feel that he is tiptoeing back into the music, afraid to break its spell. That spell was cast by the "other" Michael, Grebanier, the orchestra's first cellist, with one of Brahms' most touching themes. He later set it to words (changing the key to minor). Hearing Grebanier warm up with little bits of it was a moment of preconcert fun.

The outstanding playing of the solo winds and brass in the earlier movements reminded me of how much chamber music there is in this concerto, which has often been called a symphony with piano obbligato. Brahms must have been a model for Arnold Schoenberg when he composed his two concertos half a century later. In this music, the pianist must integrate his part with the changing textures of the orchestra, "accompanying" while always remaining the soloist.

Andsnes, who is well-known as a chamber music player and lieder accompanist, recognizes this. In view of his technique, I can hardly blame him for reveling in the piano versus orchestra aspect of the concerto, in which case MTT was precisely the adversary he needed. I would call it the "Hillary approach" — strong, combative, takes no prisoners.

Contrast this with Sandra Rivers' recent performance with the Oakland East Bay Symphony. Rivers is a pianist primarily known for her work as an "assisting artist" with the likes of Joshua Bell. She emphasized the piano with orchestra aspect, and the results were deeply moving, albeit in a totally different way.

The last movement, as performed by MTT and LOA, was a rollicking, even jovial affair that seemed to be over before it began. Indeed, it began before I had a chance to awaken from the dreamlike slow movement. The final chord was treated as dominant in preparation for the E-flat tonality that begins the finale, so I guess it made some sense. Slow movement melts into happy finale. In any other concert, at that point we should have gone home happy.
Seeking Out the Melancholic
Yet every story has two sides, and thanks to brilliant programming we heard them both. In the first movement of the Fourth Symphony, composed four years after the piano concerto, it was difficult for the audience (and no doubt for the performers, as well) to make the shift to a much more serious vein, in this last of Brahms' works in the symphonic genre. The music of the first movement is so lovely that it doesn't seem possible that all will not end well, in this best-of-all-possible worlds.

The sunny temperament of Brahms is still present to some degree in the Scherzo, the third movement of the symphony. There the triangle tinkles merrily, played to perfection by Jack van Geem. But from the opening sigh in the strings, to the last trumpet of doom, Thomas went for the deep, melancholy song that is the only true way to Brahms' heart. The sad opening solo in the slow movement, played by the horn, tells the full story of human life and its varieties of grief.

It is a kind of miracle that the orchestra comes together and leads us listeners into a world of compassion and consolation. The chorale, played by three trombones in the last movement, was so beautifully and movingly shaped by Thomas that it made clear that opposites can and do coexist in this tragic, yet ultimately uplifting, work.

Jerry Kuderna is a pianist who gives lecture/recitals every Friday at the Berkeley Arts festival.