A Thrilling Brahms Violin Concerto at the Seattle Symphony

United StatesUnited States Schubert, Janáček, and Brahms Jennifer Koh, (violin), Seattle Symphony, Ludovic Morlot (conductor), Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 24.3.2012 (BJ)

It was just the other day, reviewing Ludovic Morlot’s recent French program with the Seattle Symphony, that I was expressing the view that “a little more of the flexible pulse exhibited throughout this concert would be beneficial to Morlot’s performances of the Viennese classics, where, for all their concentration of form, flexibility is no less appropriate.” Well, the performances that began and ended his concert on 24 March delivered amply in that regard.

It might, indeed, have been possible to feel that in three orchestral numbers and three rarely heard choruses from Schubert’s incidental music to Rosamunde flexibility was carried to a degree of excess–but I most emphatically didn’t feel that way. It all sounded quite fine, especially the sensitively tuneful Entr’acte–the one with the tune Schubert soon recycled for the slow movement of his A-minor String Quartet–in which the orchestra produced some caressing sonorities and some telling rhythmic punctuation under the conductor’s increasingly assured and instinctive leadership.

In the Brahms Violin Concerto the conductor’s job is not so much to lead as to follow. Here we were presented with a soloist in the young Jennifer Koh (whom I had not previously heard) with a cast-iron technique but also, more importantly, with a strong sense of music’s meaning. In his book Piano Pieces, the great American pianist Russell Sherman insists as one of his cardinal principles that, if you are not prepared to take risks, there is no point in performing music. Ms. Koh took every risk in the book, and made almost all of them pay off richly. Occasionally, her treatment of the big multiple-stopped passages was perhaps a bit over-fierce–but she managed to integrate them firmly into her conception of the work, and my goodness, how divinely and uncompromisingly she stretched and cosseted the high-lying lyrical passages  in which Brahms explores the implications of his superb main themes!

Certainly this was not the kind of interpretation that would appeal to devotees of metronomic regularity of pulse; but there is scant reason to believe that any of the great Viennese classical composers were numbered among such devotees, and a great deal of evidence from the period to the contrary. Morlot fulfilled his role of accompanying partner faithfully, which, given the sheer heft of his soloist’s playing, explains why this was not the most refined account of the work’s orchestral part I have ever heard. It certainly was among the most exciting ones, distinguished by zestful and disciplined tutti work and by some magical solos, including Ben Hausmann’s beautiful shaping of the slow movement’s theme. The only tiny lack I felt was of sufficient emphasis on the short drum-roll that underpins a couple of transitional measures in the first movement. By contrast, the double-basses’ insistent repeated-note triplets near the end of the movement’s development section were unusually clearly and effectively balanced. Ms. Koh’s cadenza, by the way, was a blend of material from Kreisler’s with ideas of her own; it was stylistically apt enough, but perhaps a little too much of a good thing.

Combining Schubert on a program with Brahms, the man who was to be one of his most devoted admirers and the co-editor with Mandyczewski of his collected works, is an excellent idea. Between the two, suitable contrast was provided by Janáček’s stirring three-movement tone poem Taras Bulba. This is one of the greatest works of a composer who is still not as well known as he deserves to be: an intensely dramatic musical evocation of a story of heroism and tragedy, set in the days when war was much more a matter of individual heroism than it is in these mechanized days. Scored with sumptuous beauty, with soaring strings and ripely romantic textures, it was played with total conviction. Brasses and woodwinds made their contributions highly effective. There was an accomplished violin solo from the week’s concertmaster, Emma McGrath, and a firm handling (and presumably pedaling) by Joseph Adam of the organ part that adds spine-tingling power to the piece at climactic moments.

Bernard Jacobson