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Concert Review

Brahmsfest in Paris

Johannes Brahms

  • Symphony #1 in C minor, Op. 68
  • Symphony #2 in D Major, Op. 73
  • Symphony #3 in F Major, Op. 90
  • Symphony #4 in E minor, Op. 98
  • Piano Concerto #1 in D minor, Op. 15
  • Piano Concerto #2 in B Flat Major, Op. 83
  • Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 77
  • "Double" Concerto for Violin, Cello & Orchestra in A minor, Op. 102
Pierre-Laurent Aimard, piano
Arcadi Volodos, piano
Leonidas Kavakos, violin
Julian Rachlin, violin
Enrico Dindo, cello
Gewandhaus Orchestra Leipzig/Riccardo Chailly
Paris, Salle Pleyel, 26-27 October and 1-2 November 2013

Coinciding with their CD-release of the Brahms Symphonies, Riccardo Chailly and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra toured London, Paris and Vienna with the complete Symphony and Concerto cycle. Marketing-wise it doesn't get any better than that. Music-wise it was a true Brahms feast.

I was able to attend the whole series at the Paris Salle Pleyel – and would like to thank Philippe Provensal and his press team for their generous assistance. Spread over four concerts, with each of the symphonies paired to a concerto, maestro Chailly and his Leipzig ensemble offered a unique opportunity to (re)visit one of the most significant symphonic legacies of the 19th century. Riccardo Chailly has been Gewandhauskapellmeister since the start of the 2005/6 season. With its 270 years of history the Gewandhaus Orchestra is not only the oldest in the world, it boasts a long tradition of championing Brahms's music. The composer himself conducted and performed no less than 16 times in Leipzig, where during his lifetime a true personal cult had developed. In the 1913/14 season of the Gewandhaus a first Brahms cycle was brought under the baton of Arthur Nikisch, whom the composer had known as orchestra leader. Now, a hundred years later, Chailly continues this tradition in grand form.

Riccardo Chailly previously recorded a Brahms Symphonies cycle during his Royal Concertgebouw days in Amsterdam in the late 1980s, yet time seems to have matured his view considerably and he clearly knows where he is headed. Even if he doesn't go for the radical scholarly approach favored by the period performance advocates, Chailly has evidently done his research as well and this Brahms sounds quite differently indeed. Any remaining suspicious minds about his talents as an orchestrator should now definitely be silenced. As should be the conviction that Brahms was merely an academic composer.

The Brahms Chailly and the Gewandhaus Orchestra bring is a highly nuanced one, which attentively takes into account the composer's strongly individual blend of romantic, classical and pre-classical techniques. Forget the thick and hazy, string-overloaded sonority often associated with his music (the so-called Nordic mists), the allegedly romantic ponderousness which scuttles all sense of movement, or the Brucknerized Brahms. Chailly's Brahms appears not only transparent, lean-textured, dynamically well-paced and driven forward with judiciously chosen tempi (often swift, but never breathlessly so), he is also lyrical and dramatically alive, often dark and intense, but with a sincere response to the suffering encapsulated in his music. The characteristic play of light and darkness assures tremendous expressive power, in spite of the relatively limited variety of instruments in Brahms's orchestra. The inventiveness with which the composer modulated the classical structures was evident throughout. This is a Brahms who thought and proposed answers about the development of music as much as his traditional opposites led by Liszt and Wagner. This is the Brahms admired by Schoenberg, but also a more human Brahms.

Chailly capitalizes primarily upon the qualities of his Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, the true star of this cycle, offering a rich and balanced palette, grounded upon rock-solid basses and without a weak chain in the ensemble. The string body was quite naturally more numerous than it would have been in Brahms's time, yet the internal balance was one of the continuous joys of this cycle, as was the consistency of the playing. The violins were antiphonally placed, with the cellos in the center and the double basses back left. This guaranteed an open but substantial sound. Woodwinds were in pairs, while the horns sat separated from the trumpets and trombones. The Leipzig woodwinds, highly individual, all have first players that any orchestra would envy and the strings effortlessly covered the whole range of mood and temperature. There was no better way to introduce the quality of this orchestra by beginning the cycle with Brahms's last orchestral composition, the Double Concerto, where the vigorous opening statement almost knocked me out of my seat.

All four symphonies were given compelling readings. Chailly's approach was heard to great effect in the First Symphony (created in 1876). An intense, smoldering performance, demonstrating his grasp of the architecture and shaped by striking tempo shifts and this characteristic chiaroscuro inside the movements, as well as within the complete work. The massed strings of the Gewandhaus could sound dense and impenetrable, but then again totally transparent and incredibly diverse. Woodwinds (especially oboe and flute) and horns changed from atmospheric to piercing in no time. Chailly also repeated the exposition, which felt in this case totally appropriate as it enhanced the impact of the first movement without breaking the sweep. The Andante sostenuto acquired a rugged gentleness, beautifully melodious, but the real loss of pressure only came with the Poco allegretto e grazioso. Only temporarily though. The final movement opened incredibly tense and dark, leading into the famous Beethoven theme which sounded here edgier than usual. Chailly had one more trump card up his sleeve when he unleashed the coda, loud and fast, bringing this Symphony to a thrillingly theatrical end.

In the Second Symphony (1877), often seen as lighter work, a "pastoral" excursion after the drama of the First, Chailly seems to follow Brahms's own remarks that so far he never wrote anything as sad and that the score should be published with a black border. Both the first movements superbly balanced the upbeat atmosphere with the darker undertones (effectively added by the lower strings and the trombones and tuba), turning this Symphony in a very ambiguous work. Again, one had to admire the richly textured string sound and carefully applied dynamics. The third movement did bring some relief. Chailly's almost balletic approach was utterly delightful (at times almost reminding of Tchaikovsky, something I never expected to hear in a Brahms symphony), but here too there were hints of sadness (oboes). The final Allegro con spirito in the manner of the Viennese classics, was after the sinister sotto voce opening theme given a thundering, Beethoven-like reading, full of contrasts but culminating in an exhilarating, triumphant finale.

This isn't comfortable Brahms by any means, but it's utterly fascinating. This was also the impression left by the elusive Third Symphony (1883). Chailly gave the Allegro con brio an agreeable flow, while in the peculiar, almost chamber music-like inner movements (especially in the haunting Poco allegretto), he uncovered plenty of melancholic touches under the deceivingly simple and serene surface plenty. The violins sounded gorgeous and the delicate balance between strings and woodwinds was impeccably held. The final Allegro beginning with a carefully prepared intro was given a highly energetic and dramatic reading, topped by shattering tutti with violins breathing fire and crashing timpani. It made the calm and soft ending with its transparent sonority even more striking.

The performance of the Fourth (1885) left no doubt what a crowning achievement this is. Chailly again stressed its range of expressivity, the simple, graceful first movement theme evolving into a hair-raising climax with shrieking violins and thundering timpani. And who could resist the romanticism of the Andante moderato with its underlying sadness when played this eloquently (what superb horns)? Or the robust, pulsating brilliance of the highly original Allegro giocoso? Still, it was the last movement passacaglia, excitingly dynamic but held together as an organic whole, which garnered most admiration.

The concertos, unfortunately, didn't attain the same level of success – at least not all. The Double Concerto (1887) which opened the cycle was a case in point. It was a misfortune of course that violinist Leonidas Kavakos canceled due to illness and had to be replaced at the last minute by his Lithuanian colleague Julian Rachlin. Paired with Enrico Dindo on cello, however, a true partnership was only hinted at. Dindo's dominating and eloquently ardent cello too often outmatched Rachlin, who hadn't completely adjusted to the edgy, dramatically driven approach from Chailly either. The Andante gave us some delectable passages, with the soloists in a dialogue with the orchestra, but the outer movements left quite some ground uncovered.

The Second Piano Concerto (1878-81) with the Russian pianist Arcadi Volodos as soloist was another matter. This massive and complex score that can often sound disjointed and overlong was given coherence by the quality of both orchestra and soloist as much as by the mutual understanding between conductor and pianist. With an unerring sense of common purpose Chailly and Volodos traversed the shifting moods of the work, unraveling the complex personality of the composer. The textural clarity that Chailly coaxed from the orchestra was echoed by Volodos's amazing piano. Whether in tender musings or playing at full power, in dialogue with the orchestra or solo, Volodos always had an astonishing array of colors and nuances to share. His dynamic control, even during the most taxing passages (as in that terrifyingly difficult moment in the middle of the Scherzo) was absolutely superb. Totally unselfish, his effortless technique was never used to show off, it gave the range of Brahms's expressivity a natural, human face. The Andante was a moment of poetic bliss. The cello of Jürnjakob Timm sang from every bar, but it was Volodos's entrance, soon also in dialogue with the orchestra, that made time stand still. A magnificent performance and one of the high points of this cycle.

This outstanding success wasn't repeated with the First Piano Concerto, where the French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard performed the solo part. The earliest work (created in 1859) of the whole cycle, the D minor concerto presents a psychological survey of the young Brahms, a highly personal expression of his internal struggles. Aimard, however, seemed to take up the position of uninvolved observer. This not only made it harder to sympathize with Brahms's intentions, but Aimard's coolly analytical stance didn't connect with Chailly's romantic "Sturm und Drang" approach. The stormy opening, superbly performed by the orchestra, was answered with rigid phrases from Aimard, who seemed locked in his own world. Contrasting with the color Chailly pushed out of his orchestra, Aimard remained monochrome and lacked variety of weight. (In fact, the total opposite of Volodos's congenial warm sonority.) The Adagio fared somewhat better with the soloist taking the part of expressive, sometimes worried outpourings (although Aimard's loud sniffing to accentuate every phrase was simply obtrusive) and the orchestra in a consoling role.

Then there was the case of Leonidas Kavakos, recovered in time to take the solo part in the Violin Concerto. In a sense, the Greek violinist gave a flawless performance, with the purest of tones and taking all technical hurdles without any effort or strain. But it was also a reading with little tension, imagination, let alone risks. Kavakos has to be a model of self-effacement as a stage performer, eschewing all sense of showmanship and effect. He appears as if he was a member of the orchestra, hugging the leader as a long-time friend. At best, his sound blended with the orchestra, and in effect so did he – turning his back to the audience, he faced the orchestra when he had nothing to play. This approach worked well in the slow movement, with its gentle words-without-music character, magically rendered by the orchestra's open textures, and the ravishing oboe solo from Domenico Orlando introducing a beautiful dialogue with Kavakos. Yet, overall, in the first movement there was an awkward feel of disconnection. The vibrant orchestral passages were toned down time and again by Kavakos's relaxed manner. His interventions were static to the point of breaking the movement's flow. He coaxed some tremendous pianissimi toward the end of the movement, and there is no doubt what a magnificent artist he is, but for the most part the real magic was missing. It was only in the final movement, with its gypsy accents, that soloist and orchestra seemed to find a more convincing balance.

In any case, this concert cycle was a fantastic calling card for the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and its music director Riccardo Chailly. With playing of this level and inspiration, their place among the top orchestras of the moment is fully deserved. But it was most of all Brahms's symphonic music that was feted here under the best possible circumstances. And what a feast it was!

Copyright © 2013, Marc Haegeman