Brahms Double Concerto

All-Brahms at the CSO

Date Reviewed: October 18, 2012

It is a delight to attend an evening at the symphony with an entirely first-rate program.  Brahms’ First Symphony in C minor, Op. 68 and “Double” Concerto for Violin and Cello in A minor, Op. 102, which together comprise the current offering at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, are both among the greatest of the Romantic orchestral repertoire; and I beg to be permitted a sigh of relief that no one felt compelled to tack on some thanklessly thorny second-rate modern piece for the sake of novelty.  Inasmuch as new and under-represented composers deserve a chance to have their music heard, there is nothing quite so gratifying as an uninterrupted hour or two of worthy favorites by Mozart or Brahms – of the sort of music that reminds us just how stirring and sweeping classical music can be, and why we came to love it in the first place.

Although Thursday night’s concert certainly offered plenty to enjoy, the performances under conductor Osmo Vänskä (filling in for Bernard Haitink, who canceled last week) fell a bit short of making Brahms’ music sound as stirring and sweeping as it can.  The good news is that generally, things improved as the evening passed.

The soloists in the Double Concerto commencing the program, French brothers Renaud (violin) and Gautier (cello) Capuçon, seemed focused on delicacy, not completely avoiding gruffness but for the most part spinning out gently flowing lines rather than digging in assertively, to the extent that violinist Renaud in particular often struggled to project above the orchestra.  Technical issues aside, I felt at times that the effect was to daintify the piece, which would have benefited from more drive, although there was a certain charming innocence to it; the soloists’ relatively heavy use of portamento (by recent standards) contributed to the sense of nostalgia, and there was something endearing about it.  That having been said, I did find that the gorgeous second movement was given short shrift, the combination of a relatively fast tempo (although it is marked Andante rather than Adagio) and a lack of expressiveness depriving it of the lyrical sweep and serenity it can have.

On the orchestral side, the forceful opening of the first movement was marked by a diffuse string tone and relatively sloppy articulation; however, the orchestra’s renowned brass section was in fine form, perhaps a mixed blessing since throughout the evening but especially here they tended to drown out the rest of the orchestra.  The string ensemble improved by the end of the first movement, gaining a bit in sheer presence, and turned in some really spirited playing in the finale.  A reduced string section was employed throughout the concerto, perhaps as a not-entirely-successful attempt to accommodate the Capuçons’ light tone.

Following intermission, the orchestra re-assembled on stage for the First Symphony with noticeably more strings.  This was a clear boon, adding greater weight to the sound, even if the strings could have been richer; their playing in the symphony was also more agile and articulate than in the concerto.  I should note, however, that the hitherto over-prominent brass sounded shaky in the finale.

Interpretively, Vänskä’s reading of the symphony was very much in keeping with how the  Capuçons had approached the solos in the Double Concerto, favoring delicacy over power.  I have never heard such a swooning interpretation of this piece.  The outer movements were taken slowly and with overly drawn-out phrasing that dispelled momentum, even in the more turbulent passages; many sections came across as labored or schmalzy or even both.  But the performance was not without its rewards: the slow movement, which suffered less from this approach, was quite lovely; and Vänskä got increasingly powerful playing throughout each of the outer movements, which did something to offset the impression of mushiness.  By the triumphant ending of the finale, I was thoroughly enjoying the grandeur of the playing in spite of any mannerism that had bothered me – something I wouldn’t say of the concerto’s performance – and I left the hall largely satisfied.

In short, if you desire thoroughly gripping readings of these great warhorses, you might not find it here; but for anyone open to an unusually “sweetened” take on a composer with a reputation for being a bit dour, or to simply hearing a great orchestra in two thoroughly wonderful pieces, this program has undeniable merit.

Recommended.

Reviewed by Samuel Wigutow

At the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, 220 S. Michigan Ave., Chicago, IL, Call 312-294-2000, www.cso.org, tickets $34- $280, Friday, Oct 19 & Saturday, Oct 20 at 8pm,