Gil Shaham, Michael Tilson Thomas Revel in Brahms

United StatesUnited States  Wagner, Brahms, Brahms-Schoenberg: Gil Shaham (violin), Michael Tilson Thomas (conductor), San Francisco Symphony, Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, 26.11.2011 (HS)

Wagner: Prelude to Act III of Lohengrin
Brahms: Violin Concerto
Brahms-Schoenberg: Piano Quartet No. 1

There’s something about Brahms that speaks to Michael Tilson Thomas. That has become abundantly clear in recent years as each performance of Brahms’ music brings into clearer focus the conductor’s ability to find transparency and detail without losing the essential weight and thrust. So many conductors try for hefty sonorities and so much richness that the symphonies and concertos come off more like Wagner than Brahms.

That thought might have horrified the Brahms camp in the 19th-century war between the conservative factions of German music (i.e., Brahms) and the more flamboyant side (i.e., Wagner and Liszt), and may have played into Tilson Thomas’ choice of launching this program with the raucous, rowdy Prelude to Act III of Lohengrin. Slowish tempos gave the prelude a somewhat ponderous feel, which, come to think of it, is exactly what Brahms’ followers would have argued. Tilson Thomas seemed to be winking at us, referencing the German 19th century’s musical war with six minutes of colorful but relatively shallow theater music.

If anything, this brief piece set up an obvious contrast with his approach to Brahms in the violin concerto that followed. On this the conductor and violinist Gil Shaham were in complete accord—that the music must have a sense of lightness and deftness. By avoiding weightiness, the concerto took wing.

Shaham seems unable to waste a note or phrase in everything he plays these days. Every sound leads to the next and fits seamlessly into the context of everything around it. And oh, those sounds. Shaham makes his 1699 Stradivarius sing with pure tone that responds to every tug of the music, remains sweet and unforced through the very top of the range, yet can roughen its edges when a phrase calls for a little extra dig.

The unity of purpose between Shaham and Tilson Thomas was palpable in the concerto’s first movement, where the violin, rather than stepping forward to take the lead, weaves its way through the texture Brahms presents in the orchestra. The responsiveness between conductor and soloist was remarkable to hear as they shaped the music into something stately and beautiful. Oboist William Bennett played the famous solo that quietly opens the slow movement with simplicity and subtlety, leaving plenty of room for Shaham to develop extra layers on the second go-round without overdoing the emotion. The effect was a sense of holding the breath, of gathering strength for the finale. The fleet tempo and Shaham’s dazzling technical command combined with inspired and barely controlled playing from the orchestra made for an exciting finish.

The composer Arnold Schoenberg orchestrated Brahms’ Piano Quartet No. 1 in 1937, while on the faculty of UCLA. He famously wrote that, although he liked the piece and regretted that it was played so seldom, “It is always very badly played, because the better the pianist, the louder he plays, and you hear nothing from the strings. I wanted once to hear everything, and this I achieved.” Though the music follows the original notes, Schoenberg deploys a full orchestra’s worth of violins, violas, cellos, divides the violins and adds basses, redistributing the voices colorfully among woodwinds, brass and percussion. Though the percussion can make it sound decidedly unlike Brahms in climaxes, for the most part it sounds remarkably like what Brahms might have done if he had access to a 20th-century symphony orchestra.

This performance emphasized the talents of the first-chair players and their sections, taking on something of the character of a concerto for orchestra. It seemed as if every player made the most of his or her moment in the spotlight. Tilson Thomas shaped it all into a cohesive, highly satisfying whole. Like the concerto, the symphony-sized quartet aimed for clarity and personality, not weightiness or power. The Gypsy-music rondo of the finale was irresistible.

Harvey Steiman