Sly Brahms, sparkling Beethoven, epic R. Strauss
The MSO’s midwinter festival of music by dead Germans is not the sort of daring leap to set the heart racing in anticipation.
But the likes of Brahms, Beethoven and R. Strauss had music figured out in the 19th century, when the “modern” (i.e., Romantic) orchestra evolved into its present form. German music of the period is essential to the orchestral repertoire for very good reasons, many of them obvious at the festival opener Friday night.
Music director Edo de Waart launched it with Variations on a Theme by Haydn, an ingenious Brahms confection that gets played just now and then. Brahms chose a dignified chorale from a Haydn wind octet as his subject, and plays it straight. Then eight progressively more developmental variations go where Haydn did not. Each step of the way sounds plausible and connected, but by variation five you’re in another world. The piece is like an engrossing conversation that moves logically from one related topic to another until the relation becomes distant. De Waart shaped each variation lovingly, and the orchestra played warmly for him. I especially loved the maestro’s subtle shaping of the undulations in the seventh variation, which sounds as sweet as a warm May breeze through new leaves.
Dutch pianist Ronald Brautigam joined de Waart and the MSO in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3. This is not the grand, fist-shaking Beethoven of the Ninth Symphony, but rather the virtuoso who knew how to have fun with music. That comes out, for example, in the structure of the finale. The rondo form veers off the tracks into a full-blown development, hesitates to suggest a proper return to the A section, but takes a left turn into a cheeky little coda. Brautigam, who grew up playing fortepianos in Holland’s busy early music movement, brought some of that sensibility to the concerto and the MSO’s Steinway grand. His playing was clear, fleet, civilized and witty in the outer allegros and exquisite in the slow movement. Brautigam got Beethoven’s jokes, but he also got the delicacy of the piano filigree that is crucial in the tender Largo.
Conductors earn their money with music like this, because it won’t make sense unless it is prodded, coddled, hastened along, held back, stifled and released just so, to maintain some overall momentum and to aim the whole thing at the proper climax. It also takes a responsive and highly skilled orchestra, because it’s just plain hard to play.
De Waart’s unwavering energy kept the music alive even when quiet and meandering. The orchestra’s very good ensemble discipline and pliancy allowed the conductor the expressive flex that is essential to this late Romantic style. The many exposed solos, most notably Frank Almond’s brilliant reading of the fantastical, sustained violin caprice at the heart of Ein Heldenleben, came off beautifully and spoke to the great skill and heart of the MSO’s principals.
This program, given at Marcus Center Uihlein Hall, will be repeated at 8 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 22. Tickets are $25-$95 at the MSO website, the MSO ticket line (414-291-7605) and the Marcus Center box office, 414-723-7206.