Sunday, December 08, 2013

Kennedy Center offers a stirring Brahms First, some interesting Mozart

I hadn’t been to the Kennedy Center since the web snafu last February forced me to go to a broker for an ordinary ticket.  But last night, after some more minor website problems in the morning, I went to a reminiscence of Mozart and Beethoven.

The concert, conducted by Christoph Eschenbach, started with the Overture to “The Magic Flue” (“Die Zaungerflote).  This majestic E-flat late Mozart overture became part of my memory in the early 1970s. I can remember driving out to West Virginia to tour strip mines with a previous grad school roommate (an episode that I elaborate in the story “Expedition” in my upcoming book) and the piece came on to the car radio as I left town, early from work and a pow-wow on a friend’s last day at work before leaving for a new job. The music seemed to represent that friend.  The performance here was a little unsteady at the very beginning, as there seemed to be a slight tuning problem in the strings on the opening chords.

The second work was the Violin Concerto #4 in D, K. 218, with violinist Nurit Bar-Josef. She wore a form-fitted blue gown, bringing to mind the title of a particularly controversial film (Movies, Dec. 3).
Again, this brings back that troubling time in my coming of age.  After returning “home” from my William and Mary “expulsion”, I (in 1962) bought a Parliament (cheap) recording of this work with the Bassoon Concerto on the other side.  The first movement is typical enough, and the program notes characterize the slow movement, with its gentle scalar themes, as “moonlight-tender”, as if had inspired a particular episode of “Modern Family”.  The finale sounds like playful fluff, and the concerto ends simply and quietly, as if to invite a response.  I don’t recall if any of the other Mozart violin concertos end like this, but on December 1, 2012 Jonathan Biss played an early Piano Concerto that does.
I didn’t know that Johannes Brahms had started to compose his Symphony #1 in C Minor at age 22. He didn’t finish until over 40.  This work really penetrates when you sit on the fourth row, with Eschenbach’s deliberate, Klemperer-like tempos.  The harmonies sound rich and adventurous.  In the first movement, Eischenbach kept a “moderato” pace for the formal allegro and slowed down at the end of the development, before announcing the recapitulation.  Note that the movement ends quietly, on a Picardy Third.  The second movement shows how Brahms can make complex triple-meter interesting with syncopation and complex rhythm. The third movement seems like a relaxing respite (getting to the remote key of B for the trio) before returning to reality in the famous finale.
In the finale, the Introduction is almost like another slow movement in itself.  (Brahms introduced the finales of a couple of his big piano sonatas with long slow introductions, sometimes recalling the material of earlier movements.)  The program notes, after noting the famous C Major hymn theme, state that the movement has no development section.  I don’t perceive it that way.  After the hymn is introduced, the music gradually shifts to G Major and then E Minor for an adventurous second subject.  That was the music playing mentally on an evening in high school during a small event important to my coming of age, as I describe in my upcoming book.  Yes, this brings back those days of being a senior at Washington-Lee in 1960-1961.  The hymn theme returns to start what seems like a development.  After reaching a tremendous climax, the move slows with some of the adagio-material, and then enters what seems like a recapitulation, but only of the venturous second theme.  It comes to a false ending in C Minor, before embarking on the Coda, which turns in a development and almost a cadenza for orchestra, before finally homing in on the “Big Ben” trombone motive, ready to crash down in C Major triumph.
It strikes me as interesting that German romanticism (following baroque and classic periods) split into two paths.  I tend to put Bach, Haydn, Beethoven, Schumann and Brahms in on bucket in my own mind.  In fact, there is a lot of counterpoint in the Brahms First.   The other path seems to comprise Handel, Mozart, Schubert, Bruckner, Mahler, with Struass, Wagner and Liszt nearby.  (Liszt actually worked with counterpoint, as he proved in “ad nos”.)  Eschenbach’s conducting style brings all these styles together.

Seated up close, I could see the musicians, often female and not necessarily young.  Eschenbach is active with the baton and seems to make eye contact with the musicians.  You can hear the cellos playing pizzicato and see it.  I wondered what makes someone want to play bass as a primary instrument (usually young men).
The embed above shows a Bernstein performance with the Vienna Philharmonic in 1981. 

Note the discussion of the Brahms Symphony 2 on Jan. 13. 

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