Not liking Brahms is not an option for anyone involved in classical musoic – be it a musician, conductor, or critic. Brahms is always on the menu, and Brahms is permanently recording. And if repeat encounters don’t kindle a love with (all of) his music, they should at least lay the ground for some respect.
In the last months alone I’ve come across multiple recordings of his symphonies, serenades, piano works, variations, concertos, and sonatas on disc; in the concert hall I have come across his orchestral works at least six times. With some skill one can hide from Tchaikovsky or avoid Rachmaninov – Brahms is omnipresent, no matter what country.
Brahms’ first Piano Concerto op.15 is one of the perennially popular pieces. ArkivMusic currently lists 6 dozen different versions available on CD alone, with more arriving every year. In concert it shows up plenty less often than you might think, but it feels just as present.
In the sixth Academy Concert of the Bavarian State Orchestra, Vladimir Fedoseyev conducted it with Nikolai Lugansky as the soloist. It’s difficult to complain about anything with as fine a pianist as Lugansky handling the ivory, as he seemed to play everything with feeling, panache, and elegant understatement. His unmannered and gracious contribution was very appealing – even where the music suggests that brute force might be necessary. He showed: Not so! Even agitated fortissimo moments can be solved with stylish politeness. Not a bad choice for an interpretation, seeing that Lugansky’s tone impressed much more below forte than above. Veering between conversational-bubbly and overtly dramatic, his transitions between loud and soft were particularly notable, too.
After an uneventful Adagio the concerto was then wrapped up with a determination and steadfastness – the orchestra well above its customary standard under Nagano. Ironically the first movement, where the orchestra was the least cohesive, struck as most pleasant, mostly because it charged into the opening, rather than lumbering through the opening that seems to remember only after about four minutes that it is a piano concerto, not a symphony.
And, oh, isn’t that just the work’s problem: A concerto that so desperately wanted to be a symphony, with 90 unnecessary bars of an overbearing, verbose maestoso that only reluctantly gives way to the sublime lyricism of the piano entry. A lyricism so divine that it doesn’t need that overblown contrast at all to make its delicately strong impact. But it goes on in exaggerated contrast, a musical quilt and – as I probably repeat every time I write about it – a concerto with great music, but not a great concerto. Which are all reasons why it is difficult for the concerto to retain the listener’s attention throughout – here as elsewhere.
For all those whose love of Brahms is not yet properly developed, the reviewer of the second ever performance has words that might ring true:
“A new composition has been carried to its grave… this invention had at no point anything arresting or soothing; its thoughts either crept along all worn-out or pallid, or they reared up in feverish anxiety only to collapse all the more exhaustedly. In one word: its feelings and inventions are unhealthy… This retching and plowing, jerking and yanking, this patching and tearing of phrases – mostly clichéd – has to be endured for over three quarters of an hour.”
A bit caustic, but too good not to quote at length.
From merely good to excellent after intermission: Antonin Dvořák’s Eight Symphony opened with a brasstastic, nicely dry sound. No excess of polish but plenty of drive and good, rambunctious fun under Fedoseyev. Dvořák forges unity out of disparate materials in the second movement – as if showing the young Brahms of op.15 how to do it. The prominent theme (reached around the instruments and in particular good hands with the State Orchestra’s flutist) weaves in and out of the softest passages (unfolded with the greatest sensitivity by Fedoseyev) and rousing, marching episodes. Immediately recognizable is the waltz tune from the third movement (originally from the opera The Stubborn Lovers) – quickly followed by that little firecracker coda before the trumpet fanfare rings in the rolling finale. There Dvořák picks up the main theme again, and continues to run with it, in different guises, until the end.
With him ran and jumped the orchestra, from which Fedoseyev coaxed the most enjoyable orchestral (as opposed to operatic) performance all season.