Lincoln Center’s acclaimed Great Performers series began its 2012/13 Symphonic Masters lineup with two outstanding performances by the London Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of its principal conductor, Valery Gergiev. Each of the all-Brahms programs featured a concerto and a symphony by the composer.
The first concert took the audience on a transformative journey from dramatic darkness into radiant light, beginning with the Tragic Overture, continuing with the Violin Concerto, and ending with the sunny Second Symphony. Conceived by the composer as the pendant to his rousing Academic Festival Overture, the Tragic Overture has a powerful, brooding energy, and it was the perfect opener for the evening’s program. Gergiev was in his element, sculpting sound with sensitive, expressive gestures that could convey his intentions to the responsive orchestra merely with the fingers of his left hand.
The orchestra was joined by James Ehnes for Brahms’ magnificent violin concerto, which stands alongside that of Beethoven at the musical summit of the instrument’s repertoire. Symphonic in scope and substance, the concerto nevertheless presents the soloist with ample opportunities for the display of technical brilliance, thanks to the compositional interventions of Brahms’ close friend and dedicatee Joseph Joachim, the greatest violin virtuoso of his day. Ehnes proved himself equal to the task of rendering the fiendishly difficult passages flawless and impeccable; yet, he seemed incapable of making music with the orchestra. His playing had a tenseness and breathlessness that made it scarcely possible for Gergiev to keep the ensemble together. The unfortunate fact that there had only been one afternoon rehearsal of soloist and orchestra immediately prior to the concert was regrettably evident in the performance. The members of the orchestra played each phrase with deep conviction and profound musicality, yet Ehnes remained impassive, seemingly unaware of the inspired musical ideas with which he was meant to be in dialogue. This was especially apparent in the slow movement, in which the solo oboe states the theme, and continues to dominate throughout. Guest principal oboist Emanuel Abbuehl invoked tears with his plaintive, soulful melody, but found no echo in the responses of the solo violin. Like many of his contemporaries, Ehnes frequently indulged in swooping portamenti, ostensibly in an effort to play expressively and romantically, but these ill-advised mannerisms were unconvincing, and no substitute for true musicality. They only served to disrupt an otherwise clean performance.
Following the intermission, Gergiev returned to the podium to conduct Brahms’ majestic Second Symphony. This work not only shares tonality with the violin concerto (D major), but was also composed during a summer sojourn on the Woerthersee in the Austrian province of Carinthia. Brahms was always at his most inspired and bucolic during these summer periods of refreshment and rejuvenation, and both the violin concerto and the second symphony carry within them the traces of his contentment, while nevertheless retaining a certain inherent melancholy characteristic of the composer.
Written a summer before the violin concerto, the Second Symphony is densely packed with musical ideas and melodies. In fact, Brahms wrote to a friend that summer that “the melodies fly so fast and thick that one must be careful not to step on them.” Under Gergiev’s inspired direction, the London Symphony Orchestra filled the hall with expansive, sumptuous sound and spine-tingling rhythmic precision, ranging from lush, rich, full resonances to crisp staccato winds and string pizzicati. Gergiev masterfully brought out every nuance of the composition’s complex rhythmic structures, allowing the phrases to speak with declamatory clarity. His interpretation brought out the work’s monumentality and majesty, and one was led inevitably to think of Mahler, who undoubtedly owed a great debt to the Brahms symphonies in the creation of his own.
One of Gergiev’s greatest attributes is his element of surprise. Neither he nor his audience can ever settle into complacency, but must hear each note (or rest) as if for the very first time. A particularly effective example was in the pregnant pause between the trio of the third movement and the da capo of the scherzo — one could have heard a pin drop in the hall, such was the palpability of the silence. Then, following the reprise of the scherzo, Gergiev plunged into the finale without a second of hesitation, leading one to experience in full the musical concept of “attacca.” With the triumphant flourishes of the coda, the symphony came to a close and the ensuing thunderous applause nearly brought the house down. As the audience left the hall, many were heard to remark that this performance of the Second Symphony was the finest in memory.
The second Brahms program by Gergiev and the London Symphony Orchestra was at once more challenging and more satisfying. The choice of repertoire was less popularly appealing, more demanding, and much darker in palette. The choice of soloist — Russian pianist Denis Matsuev — in the titanic first piano concerto was much more felicitous, insofar as there was a greater sense of coherence and unity of interpretation between solo and orchestra than had been the case with the violin concerto.
Matsuev, who is fondly known as the “Siberian bear,” is a man of enormous stature and strength. Watching him attack the keys with his huge hands, one could not help but think of Brahms himself, who was known to be a powerful pianist, also due to the size of his hands. The D minor concerto was the perfect vehicle for Matsuev, as he was able effortlessly to convey the sense of commanding authority called for by the work, while at the same time melding in complete synchrony with Gergiev and the orchestra. Indeed, one could not help but think of the performance as a kind of “family affair,” so attuned was the soloist to the maestro’s every gesture. Both Matsuev and Gergiev took a slow and heavy approach to the first movement, effectively bringing out its dark timbre and ponderous sense of foreboding and drama. Both could freely indulge in mercurial mood changes and huge contrasts of dynamics, from exquisite pianissimi to thunderous fortissimi, without needing to be concerned about balance. In Brahms’ own cadenza for the first movement, Matsuev almost seemed to be channeling the composer himself, masterfully creating the illusion of an extemporary, spontaneous dialogue between left and right hands. The colors that he achieved in the long, slowly descending chromatic line leading to the coda were truly extraordinary.
Reflective and thoughtful in the second movement, Matsuev meandered through the phrases in an almost fragmentary way, occasionally floating with bell-like sonorities above the ostinato of celli and basses. His musings gave way to a fiery and tempestuous finale, which bore all the hallmarks of a virtuoso tour de force, yet never lost its playful quality. A particularly endearing moment was Matsuev’s expression of almost childlike delight in the fugato variation of the rondo; unlike Ehnes in the violin concerto, he seemed to be completely invested in the musical substance of the work.
Received by a standing ovation and shouts of “Bravo,” Matsuev could not resist performing an encore: Rachmaninoff’s pensive, lyrical Prelude in E flat major, Op. 23, No. 6. It was somewhat of a shock to hear Rachmaninoff in the midst of an all-Brahms program, but Matsuev has come to be universally recognized as a Rachmaninoff specialist (having even made a recording, “Unknown Rachmaninoff,” on the composer’s own piano), and he played the flowing prelude with such expressive musicality that one was happy to hear it.
The final work on the evening’s program was Brahms’ monumental and noble Fourth Symphony, the composer’s final and ultimate statement in the symphonic vein. Gergiev brought out the piece’s grandeur and gravity, giving the same careful attention to delicate, poignant passages as to arching, architectural phrases. The driving dotted rhythms of the first movement positively crackled under the baton of the conductor, and one felt swept along by the compelling, inexorable sequence of musical ideas.
Gergiev was at his most sensitive (“innig,” to use Brahms’ language) in the slow second movement. He carefully laid a carpet of sound with the pizzicati of the strings, on top of which the choir of winds expressed the plaintive theme. Despite the huge size of the orchestra, this movement sounded like chamber music, with extraordinary dynamic control and range, from almost inaudible pianissimi to vibrant fortissimi, the melodies being passed from winds to strings and back again. Gergiev allowed the music to breathe organically, with rubati that came naturally out of the phrases themselves. Wielding the baton like a sorcerer, his incantations brought life to the score.
The ebullience of the unusual duple meter scherzo was followed without pause (attacca) by the finale, a Baroque chaconne in form. Gergiev masterfully maintained the dramatic tension, building from the statement of the tragic theme in the lower register of the strings, through the reiteration of dotted rhythms (recalling the first movement), and on into the subsequent variations. Most notable, perhaps, was the poignant dialogue of the solo flute with the clarinet and oboe. Gergiev’s expansive, architectonic interpretation of the finale inevitably brought to mind the movement’s ultimate prototype: the Bach Chaconne from the second partita for solo violin. Brahms surely would have been completely gratified by the performance, as it revealed his extraordinary achievement of casting an ancient form in a new and innovative harmonic guise.
With this triumphant two-program offering of Brahms, Gergiev and the London Symphony Orchestra set an extremely high standard for the 2012/2013 Symphonic Masters series, and theirs will be a difficult act to follow.