Johannes Brahms was a Romantic with a capital R. Born six years after Beethoven’s death, Brahms was so determined to continue the composer’s colossal musical legacy that he labored over his First Symphony (often nicknamed “Beethoven’s Tenth”) for over a decade. He spent nearly as much time laboring over his Piano Concerto no. 1 in D minor, an all-engrossing display of raw passion that explores virtually the entire spectrum of human emotion in less than an hour.

Yefim Bronfman © Frank Stewart
Yefim Bronfman
© Frank Stewart

Enjoying this sort of touchy-feely music is not very popular among my musicological colleagues. But enjoying Brahms is an embarrassing adolescent habit I’ve been unable to shake despite my years studying the rather anti-sentimental music of various 20th-century composers. Brahms’ music demands to be listened to and felt acutely; it is impossible to have a Brahms recording on “in the background”. His symphonies, concertos, chamber music, and piano pieces are all gushing with the sort of rigidly structured “pure” Romanticism he clung to along with his conservative contemporaries, Mendelssohn and the Schumanns. Meanwhile “progressive” composers such as Liszt and Wagner advocated for a “New German School” and scorned Brahms’ old-fashioned ways. Yet Brahms’ music survived and even went on to influence 20th-century mavericks Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern.

The New York Philharmonic, with conductor Lorin Maazel and piano soloist Yefim Bronfman, offered a riveting performance of Brahms’ First Piano Concerto on Friday afternoon. From the opening rumble of the timpani, I found myself immersed in a familiar work at the hands of expert musicians. Maazel, Bronfman and the orchestra worked together seamlessly, careening and murmuring and thundering not as three separate entities but as one organism with the ability to make music seem as effortless and logical as breathing. They roamed skilfully through heavy sections, particularly those featuring sweeping and searing strings, to intricately delicate passages, all the way to the triumphant ending. Maazel guided the musicians through some surprising yet agreeable tempo changes, while Bronfman refused to steal the spotlight for himself. The versatile pianist worked with the orchestra rather than against them. His humble sincerity was apt, as Brahms’ first drafts for the piece were originally not a concerto but in fact a symphony in D minor. The only drawback to an otherwise impressive performance was the occasional dispassionate plodding, which came across as either boredom or a lack of energy. The latter is understandable: I, for one, felt as if Brahms’ music had swallowed me whole and spat me back out as a fatigued shell of a human being, and I was just listening to, not producing, those glorious sounds.

During intermission, I braced myself for another emotional pummeling which was to come in the form of Sibelius’ Symphony no. 2 in D major. This emotional pummeling was markedly different from Brahms’ brand of nameless, faceless passion. Whereas Brahms devoted himself to absolute music, that is, non-representational music that could be “about” anything or nothing, Sibelius was a master of tone poems, folk melodies, and incidental music – music that is very much “about” something. His Second Symphony has debatably “political” roots, though the composer himself denied it, and it was eventually nicknamed the “Symphony of Independence”. While Brahms’ Piano Concerto was an exemplification of “pure” German tradition, Sibelius’ symphony expresses the Finnish nationalism that pervades so much of his œuvre.

And whereas the Brahms Piano Concerto offered the sensation of immersion, the Philharmonic’s performance of Sibelius’ symphony was more akin to a series of submersions and surfacings. At times I felt as if the music were gasping for air and light and breathtaking beauty, and then it would descend once again into primordial murkiness. The piece is undeniably visual; the violins at one point evoked a swarm of bees. The performances were once again subtle and polished, albeit a bit unenergetic at times, and the cellists deserve particular praise for their ethereal whispers and unfaltering focus. Maazel was as trustworthy as ever as he conducted without a score, never hurrying, and breaking free from minor to major at the end with poise and resolution. Once the applause had died down, I stumbled from Avery Fisher Hall as if waking from a tumultuous dream of vivid emotions and vague imagery; my mind was echoing with a jumble of otherworldly melodies.

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