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Ionarts-at-Large: Thielemann & Kavakos in (More) Brahms

More Brahms from the Munich Philharmonic – after an atrocious Double Concerto (review here) – they returned with Brahms’ Second Symphony and his Violin Concerto just a week later, again under Christian Thielemann.

Thielemann's Brahms First on Deutsche Grammophon is bold, bordering bulky – but it has its undeniable moments. In concert, the Second Symphony didn’t sound as though Thielemann has yet found his way with the work. Duly observing the exposition repeat in the first movement, he gave the horn section two chances at excelling and the used neither. Entries were insecure, wobbles common, and diminuendos abrupt. The second movement (Adagio non troppo), another one of those gentlest of slow movements that make Brahms Symphonies so wonderful, was better, if not yet entirely satisfactory - dolce markings in the score didn’t always translate into particularly sweetness, for example.

As in the Violin Concerto, there are chamber music like sections for winds that can be – and were – delightful: A veritable wind sextet for six bars after “A” in this movement – another four bar octet after “B”.

The third movement (Allegretto grazioso), with the oboe dominating the opening (again just winds with cello pizzicato beneath them), went became more and more touching as it went along – before it all led into a zesty Allegro con spirito that outshone all that preceded, with its Thielemannesque relish, ample sound, and adequate execution.

Rather outstanding, though, was the Violin Concerto (composed just after the Second Symphony) – thanks to the ever resplendent Leonidas Kavakos. The concerto has gotten maligned by Tchaikovsky (“Hardly is a melodic line suggested, it’s already overgrown with modulations – as if afraid to communicate directly”), and Hugo Wolff (“The Melancholy of Impotence”). Hans von Bülow immortally quipped of the “Concerto against Violin” and Sarasate didn’t feel like standing around “while the oboe played the only melody in the piece.”

Beyond these clichés, truth as they may contain to some degree, the Brahms concerto would still confound our expectations of a romantic violin concerto, had it not done so much itself to define our expectations. But like most of Brahms’ Symphonies, it’s a very symphonic work – with room for the soloist to shine, but not necessarily to dazzle, woo, and entertain the audience à la Jenő Hubay or Camille Saint-Saëns or of course Tchaikovsky’s – written, as Brahms’, in 1878. Brahms concerto has bite, can be terse and tart, and the best melody really does go to the oboe. Indeed, the opening of the slow movement of the Brahms Violin concerto must be the most gratifying moment for an orchestra oboist.

Marie-Luise Obersohn, oboist for the Munich Philharmonic, indulged with audible pleasure, Thielemann giving her all the time in the world to phrase and enjoy it. Then unfolds a wind nonet over about 30 bars – as supremely lovely as an introduction to any slow movement of any concerto. Kavakos, whose only failing in the opening Allegro was that he didn’t live up to the highest of expectations that his appearance inevitably raises, managed his way through the it with clarity and even a pointed edge, but never succumbing to a harsh or brutal sound. The Finale, much reminding of Brahms’ Hungarian Dances, was as catchy as it should be. Interestingly Thielemann, not perchance known as a particularly humble or modest conductor, seemed to defer much to Kavakos in navigating through the music.

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