Nearing the end of Lincoln Center’s annual Mostly Mozart Festival – a name that rather allows for just about any programming whim – Friday night was a return to a composer who might more plausibly appear within the programs of a Mostly Beethoven or Mostly Bach festival, but whose presence here was due, one guesses, to his devotion to the concerto genre and to a certain formal elegance in his symphonies. The enthusiastic young German conductor David Afkham was flown in for Brahms’s Second Symphony, and joined by violinist Vadim Repin and cellist Truls Mørk for the Violin and Cello Concerto.

Vadim Repin © Kasskara/DG
Vadim Repin
© Kasskara/DG

I should say from the outset that I have never found this concerto to be a successful work; but that the ensemble did nothing to convince me otherwise should not be taken as any indictment against their ability. The performance nevertheless lacked finish. Having to coordinate not one but two soloists’ visions of the piece with the conductor’s on what was certainly a woefully inadequate rehearsal schedule, the performance of this concerto was particularly marked by a lack of integration. Mr. Mørk was admirable as arbiter between Mr. Repin and Mr. Afkham, theatrically leaning toward both at various moments and trying to connect their discrete music-making with his body as bridge. But the kind of communicative expressiveness he was going for was rarely returned, giving his valiant efforts the quality of a captain attempting to salvage a sinking ship.

Perhaps more rehearsal time would have helped the two soloists find a common ground between Mr. Mørk’s intelligent playfulness and Mr. Repin’s almost childlike straightforwardness. It certainly would have helped with Mr. Repin’s execution on the violin, which was often quite badly out of tune. Yet no amount of rehearsing would have addressed some of the basic problems at foot in this work, which include its failure to achieve both a full symphonic breadth as well as a real chamber-like elasticity that one finds in the solo concertos, especially the Violin Concerto and the second Piano Concerto.

The Second Symphony, however, saved the night from utter irrelevance. It is an excellent symphony, and Mr. Afkham seemed visibly relieved that he again had control of the entire apparatus, instead of needing to divide his attentions as traffic controller between so many different minds. As my home bases are the Chicago and Toronto Symphony Orchestras, I do not know whether the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra, or Avery Fisher Hall, or both were responsible for the incredible directness of sound from the winds that I heard this night, which transmitted the grit of the flutes’ sound without washing it out into a pleasant smoothness. The strings, too, came very close in moments to a truly soaring and independent sound, and the double basses were anchored beautifully in that hall. The orchestra’s balance made me think of the Vienna Philharmonic in their home at the Musikverein, where I heard a truly bass-grounded orchestral sound for the first time, every upper voice emerging from the harmonics of that bottom growl. And so I found myself thinking about Vienna at the end of this night – its hall and its sounds – closing the circle between Brahms and Mozart after all.