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SA Symphony, Camerata, SLL, Gluzman, Wang

More Brahms, less 'Brahmsian'

February 17, 2013

If San Antonio Symphony music director Sebastian Lang-Lessing conducts nothing more this season, he’s earned his salary and his laurels with luminous, acutely observed accounts of Johannes Brahms’s Third and Fourth symphonies, Feb. 15 and 16, respectively, in the Majestic Theatre.

The two symphonies were hardly the only distinguished performances in this extended weekend of Brahms Festival concerts. The Feb. 15 program opened with the Violin Concerto in a performance of unsurpassed integrity by the Ukrainian-born Israeli violinist Vadim Gluzman. The next evening, Mr. Gluzman and the charismatic Chinese-born cellist Jian Wang fronted the orchestra in the Double Concerto. 

On Feb. 14, Mr. Gluzman and his wife, the pianist Angela Yoffe, joined Camerata San Antonio in an extraordinary evening of Brahms’s late chamber music. The Violin Sonata in D Minor was flanked by the Clarinet Sonata and the great Clarinet Quintet, featuring the symphony’s top-notch principal clarinet, Ilya Shterenberg -- another Ukrainian expatriate.

Evidence of Mr. Lang-Lessing’s deeply inquisitive study of the scores pervaded the performances of the two symphonies. Dynamics, tempi, articulation and expression marks were rendered in unusually high relief -- not just dutifully, but to clear musical and dramatic purpose. Some passages verged on the shocking, as in the conductor’s pedal-to-the-metal accelerando in the few measures leading into the development section of the Third Symphony’s opening movement. In the Fourth Symphony the splendid horns and trombones, rather than fitting politely into a “Brahmsian” texture, often took on a more aggressive, martial quality than is customary.

Indeed, on the whole these were the least “Brahmsian” performances of Brahms symphonies I can recall -- that is, the least reflexively tethered to a style, and the most attentive to the implications of the score itself. One doesn’t expect Brahms symphonies to sound so exciting, so fresh, so modern -- or, in the apocalyptic finale of the Fourth, so devastating. One doesn’t expect Brahms to sound that way. But one should.

A necessary digression: The standard rap about Brahms is that he was a dull conservative, honoring and extending the great Germanic tradition of Bach, Beethoven and Schumann, and standing as a bulwark against the futuristic, sophisticated Wagnerians. Half-true enough, but to understand Brahms in that way is to miss two equally important points:

First, in his most mature works Brahms was not so musically remote from Wagner as is often supposed. In the andante of the Fourth, for example, consider the beautiful, broad melody given to the string choir. That passage sounded remarkably close to Wagner in this performance -- and not just because Mr. Lang-Lessing is an excellent Wagnerian. On his own testimony, Brahms regarded himself as “the best of the Wagnerians.”

Second, Brahms’s music was the foundation for Mahler and for the modernist form-givers Arnold Schoenberg and Milton Babbitt. The latter, an American serialist who died in 2011, was particularly vociferous in his admiration of Brahms.

Brahms’s influence on Mahler is easy for us to hear, though it might not have been so easy for Mahler; Mr. Lang-Lessing’s meticulous detailing, highly flexible tempi and tendency to bring out the woodwinds made the gap between the two composers seem unusually narrow, especially in the middle movements of the Third. The gap disappeared entirely in principal flute Martha Long’s gorgeously shaped solo in the finale of the Fourth.

But what could Brahms possibly have in common with the 12-tone, hypermodern music of Schoenberg and Babbitt? Quite a lot, actually: Brahms’s abstraction, his very complex counterpoint and his penchant for truncated melodic lines, all of which figured in Tchaikovsky’s dismissive critique of Brahms’s music, found favor in the Modern period. And there was much in these performances of the Third and Fourth -- especially the clarity of that complex counterpoint -- that seemed informed by Brahms’s 20th-century progeny.

The orchestra was in top form in the Third but played a shade less reliably in the Fourth.

Mr. Gluzman has visited twice before, in 2011 and 2012. As before, he brought great intelligence, impeccable aim, a superb sense of rhythm and a lovely caramel timbre to everything he touched. His phrasing in the concerto’s slow movement was wonderfully flexible but always maintained a firm spine.

He was playing a 1690 Stradivarius once owned by Leopold Auer, an instrument with remarkable presence even at the faintest whisper. The full measure of its distinctiveness was less apparent in the large space of the Majestic than in the intimate sanctuary of Christ Episcopal Church, site of the Camerata concert. There, in a big, muscular account of the violin sonata with Ms. Yoffe, one could better hear the richness of the instrument’s overtones, especially in its glorious low register, and the intensity of its sound. 

In the Double Concerto, Mr. Wang evinced the instincts of a great actor, the kind who commands the stage with the vehemence of his diction and the conviction in every gesture. In the first movement, he aptly played the firebrand to Mr. Gluzman’s philosopher, but he was also engrossing in calmer mode, in the slow movement. Happily, this tremendously exciting cellist has been booked to play the Dvorak concerto next season.

Mike Greenberg

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