Sunday, November 11, 2007

Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms

The Seattle Symphony finished its four day Brahms festival with a performance of Brahms' second piano concerto and his fourth symphony. Previously, the orchestra played the first piano concerto and the second symphony. Vladimir Feltsman helped out in the soloist department.

Feltsman probably wasn’t the ideal soloist. The Brahms concertos are taxing and demand the full attention of the soloist. Feltsman played well enough, and quixotically pushed his way through both concertos.

His playing was powerful if not periodically sloppy, but with no finesse. And even in those moments when the piano goes toe to toe with the orchestra, sometimes he was overwhelmed by the orchestra. This was especially the case on Friday in the performance of the first concerto. 

There is no question the Brahms concertos require a firm keyboard presence. The concertos have the same scope as symphonies. The first concerto was initially conceived as a symphony before Brahms turned into a concerto. Similarly the second concerto unfolds over four movements, casting off a sustained solo cadenza in the first movement, inserting a scherzo movement, and adding more dramatic heft for the piano.

As good as Feltsman was at navigating the bold terrain of each concerto, he wasn’t able to capture the lyrical, spiritual and tender aspects of each concerto.  That's fine.  Feltsman hasn't built his career on sentiment and tenderness.

While I may have wished a more balanced soloist was at the keyboard, I can’t say I didn’t enjoy myself. What’s not to like? We don’t say Bach, Beethoven and Brahms for nothing.

There was plenty to cheer.

For example, Josh Roman’s cello work in the slow movement of the second concerto was sublime. I wonder if Roman has ever considered drafting one of his SSO violin colleagues to perform Brahms' double concerto. Given Roman’s past engagement with the Northwest Sinfonietta, I am sure the band would happily oblige. Ben Hausmann was equally excellent. Also, the orchestra as a whole

 was an astute counterpart to Feltsman.

The symphonies were a different story all together. The second symphony was about as good as it gets.  The playing was lucid and warm.  The orchestra's playing matched the pastoral intentions of Brahms. 

The fourth was a mixed bag. It took a few moments for the second violins to get into the game, but when they did there was plenty of drama. The third movement was particularly fine and the fourth movement was solid. The usually reliable trumpets were less than perfect this afternoon.  Even with a few problems the symphony never dragged and Schwarz maintained the tension throughout the work. 

The crowds for Friday and earlier today were unusual. On Friday there was ample seating throughout the hall. By contrast, today’s matinee was bursting at the seams. I also can’t recall an audience as ill as today’s. At times I it was easy to think Brahms scored his pieces for antiphonal coughing and wheezing. Friday’s audience was healthier but less patient. Maybe the largesse of the second symphony was too much for them. People were leaving during the third movement.

All in all, a commendable and enjoyable four days for the symphony and concertgoers.


Anonymous said...

People were leaving during the third movement? That just proves the point of the musician from the previous post. People in your town are not excited to hear their orchestra perform. Maybe your city should consider performing all their concerts earlier in the day so that everyone will be inclined to hear the whole of a piece of music. Now that's a novel idea.

Z. Carstensen said...

Your point is well taken. Over the last few seasons, the SSO has created a Friday afternoon series where concerts start at 1:00 pm.