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Infinite Variety in Brahms

May 20, 2008

One of the finer aspects of the San Francisco Symphony's current Brahms Festival is that in only three programs it manages to give a pretty complete view of what he stood for. The second of those three programs Thursday evening in Davies Symphony Hall featured one of his most lighthearted orchestral works, the Serenade No. 2 in A Major, Op. 16, the dramatically tragic Piano Concerto No. 1 in D Minor, Op. 15, and one of his displays of sheer compositional technique, the Variations on a Theme by Haydn, Op. 56a.
Michael Tilson Thomas beautifully managed to capture the individual styles of all three works by leaning a bit on German Romantic models, as established by the likes of Bruno Walter or Karl Böhm. MTT also had the advantage of showcasing virtuoso pianist Yefim Bronfman as his soloist for the concerto. While the performance was not 100 percent perfect, MTT and Bronfman came so close to achieving that that it hardly mattered.

Brahms had begun work on a Symphony in D Minor in 1854, largely under peer pressure. But it just didn't work out to his satisfaction. Rather than burn the symphony, as he did with so many of his manuscripts, he recast it into part of his First Concerto, and partly reused other bits for his German Requiem. That may account for the odd formal layout of the concerto. The very symphonic first movement is long, over half the length of the final two movements put together.

Transferring orchestral textures into a concerto format is a tricky task, at best. While the concerto is an unquestioned masterpiece, it is most problematic to hold together, as well as fiercely difficult for the pianist. Early critics were not far off base in labeling it as a symphony with piano obbligato. (Tchaikovsky faced much the same problem when resetting his Seventh Symphony sketches as his unfinished Third Piano Concerto.) The wonder is that Brahms, in spite of the difficulty, managed to pull it off.
Going the Distance
The piano part is inordinately taxing. Coping with the fatigue factor as well as the pervasive unreasonable keyboard writing can be daunting. The concerto bulges with extensive double, triple, and quadruple trills, extremely tiring for the hands and wrist when they are so long and frequent, as in the Brahms First. I know of no other concerto that's so dominated by flutterings.

That, and the 45+ minutes of unrelieved intensity, requires that the artist have a keen feeling for self-pacing. He simply cannot maintain the required white heat for that length of time. When coupled with the inevitable fatigue factor, still playing all the expressive elements takes a special sort of pianist indeed. Bravo, Bronfman! He did it.

Bronfman seemed to hold an endless amount of power in reserve, drawing orchestral sonorities from the piano time and again. Then too, his phrasing stuck me as ideal, tastefully brimming with passion even in quiet episodes. The lyricism of his solo passages was velvet coated. Indeed, the little soft-voiced cadenza near the close of the slow movement proved magical — one of the particularly memorable episodes of the performance. But then, dynamic shadings from both him and the orchestra were super throughout the concert.

His one small flaw was the occasional bit of heavy pedaling, smearing sonority in some of the more tortuous passages. As the work closed the evening, the audience obviously hoped for an encore. None was forthcoming. After all, what can you play after that concerto without its becoming a lead balloon?
All-Smiles Serenade
Hardly a greater contrast with that stone-faced concerto can be found than the Second Serenade, which is all smiles and folksy charm. The serenade is scored for the classical orchestra of Haydn and Mozart, minus any violins. This serves to highlight the importance of upper woodwinds against the lushness of the violas, cellos, and basses. It produces a most unusual orchestral coloration, one that other composers would later toy with, most obviously Dvořák in his Second Serenade (though he dropped the violas as well as the violins).

The five-movement Serenade contains both a Scherzo and a Menuetto to emphasize its 18th-century influences. Yet this is North German classicism, a good deal thicker than was favored in Mozart's Vienna. Chords and doublings tend to be fuller than are typically encountered in a Mozart serenade — Brahms' cream cheese music rather than Mozart's whipped cream music. What really stood out was the splendid playing of the Symphony's wind section, all in perfect balance, a thing undoubtedly owing much to the skills of MTT in fostering it.

MTT opened the concert with a most distinguished performance of (as it's commonly known) the "Haydn Variations." Variations are one of the more difficult musical forms to control, if they are to add up to more than an assortment of sonic confetti. Finding a continuous line of logic from the first variation through to the closing notes surpasses mere technical competence. The composer needs a keen appreciation of finite mathematics within sonics. Music, after all, is just the acoustical manifestation of mathematical formations.

Brahms, who was a past master at this, once noted that the key lay in maintaining variation changes to the bass lines. Audiences will hardly be aware of this going on, nor should they, but therein lies the artistry of the achievement.

Then, in an act of sheer chutzpah, Brahms had the gall to end his superb set of variations with a finale that's another set of variations, a Passacaglia. That's an even more demanding Baroque form of variations writing, one long out of vogue at the time — in other words, creating a finale to his variations out of an even more demanding set of variations on the original St. Anthony material. (The original tune is from an old Austrian pilgrims song.) In effect, he topped one coup with an even grander one. What a show-off!

The performance was brilliantly on the mark. That did not surprise me, as MTT's old recording with the London Symphony has long been a personal favorite. The sonics were appropriately rich in sonority, be it for the martial sixth variation, or the ultimate quiet but fast eighth. Above everything, Thomas captured a sense of inner profundity, whether the score was swaying or gingerly gliding. The entire evening struck me as a major triumph for all concerned.

As a nice gesture, Thomas gave solo bows to the three retiring members of the orchestra, all of whom were seated in the hall: violinist Daniel Kobialka (33 years a member), violist Leonid Gesin (29 years), and trombonist Mark Lawrence (33 years). MTT then invited any former members of the orchestra in the house to rise and take a bow. All were applauded with the gratitude they richly deserve.

Heuwell Tircuit is a composer, performer, and writer who was chief writer for Gramophone Japan and for 21 years a music reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle. He wrote previously for Chicago American and the Asahi Evening News.