The night after a relatively mellow program of Schubert and Bruckner from the Vienna Philharmonic under Herbert Blomstedt, Valery Gergiev and the Munich Philharmonic made a full frontal assault on Shostakovich and Brahms. In fact, Gergiev whipped up such tremendous sounds from his orchestra that the opening Un poco sostenuto of Brahms' First Symphony was so fierce and declamatory that the composer might just as well have stuck with his opening scheme of starting with with the second, Allegro section, which in this case seemed almost like an anti-climax.

Lorenz Nasturica-Herschcowici, Valery Gergiev and the Munich Philharmonic
© Larisa Pilinsky

It was like a Russian equivalent of Technicolor enhanced by the kind of stunning widespread dimensionality that you usually find only on digitally processed technology like Apple Music's new Spatial Audio. The effects were often hypnotic, with the strings swaying in their chairs and Gergiev's fluttering right hand reminiscent of Wilhelm Furtwängler's iconic conducting style.

Matías Piñeira, principal French horn, was golden and true in a somewhat more reserved Andante sostenuto but the concertmaster's hyper-Romantic playing in his solos had an edge and attitude that was more aligned with notions of ecstasy than Brahmsian notions of tragedy. The generously phrased, open-hearted Un poco allegretto e grazioso moved with wonderful energy and lilt that had the whole string section swaying together at times, and the clarinet solo following the return from the Trio was simple and sublime.

After the brass were eloquent and restrained in their great tune, with a bit of lovely vibrato from the trombone, Gergiev set an initially pedestrian speed for the Finale's big string theme but quickly sped up for the first big tutti statement and the movement played out with increasingly forward energy, highlighted at one point by the contrabassoon entering a nanosecond early. The final brass peroration was finished off by the timpanist, explosive as he had been all night.

Wolkenturm
© Klaus Vyhnalek

The concert had begun with a no-holds barred performance of Shostakovich's first Cello Concerto in which the dynamic clarity was stunning, the woodwinds glowed like stars, the horns were thrilling and the wonderful contrabassoonist made all sorts of fabulous low, low sounds, but it was the solo French horn who nearly stole the show. For while Gautier Capuçon was giving everything he had on his gorgeous red 1701 Matteo Goffriller, which the cellist named l'Ambassadeur in 2019 “to reflect music’s unique potential for connecting people throughout the world,” he never dominated and was frequently covered by the orchestra. Even his song with the violas in the Moderato wanted more, and as beautifully as he played when he could be heard, his dynamic range and color set were noticeably less than that of the orchestra's. Still, when the celesta's last notes floated away into the air at the end of the Moderato, and birds seemed to be chirping in response, the musical effect was striking.

There was an awkward moment at the end of the concerto when Gergiev only briefly acknowledged Capuçon before waving down Piñeira to take a well-deserved bow next to the cellist. It was quickly forgotten when the Festival's artistic director Rudolf Buchbinder came on stage to wish Capuçon a happy 40th birthday followed by the Philharmonic serenading him with the Happy Birthday song. Capuçon responded with a euphonious arrangement of the lovely Prelude from Shostakovich's Five Pieces for two violins and piano backed by four of the orchestra's superb cellists.

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