MM 7: One Step Back to Brahms

United StatesUnited States MM 7 Mozart, Schubert, Brahms: Joshua Bell (violin), Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra, Louis Langrée (conductor), Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York, 17-18.8.2012 (SSM)

Mozart: Symphony No. 1 in E-flat major, K.16 (1765)
Schubert: Symphony No. 4 in C minor (“Tragic”) (1816)
Brahms: Violin Concerto in D major (1878)

How many degrees of separation are there between Brahms and Joshua Bell? Surprisingly, there is only one. Bell plays the “Gibson ex-Huberman,” the same 1713 Stradivarius given to the 13 year-old virtuoso, Bronislaw Huberman, in 1895. The following year the child protégé performed the Brahms Violin Concerto at a concert attended by Brahms himself. His biographer, Max Kalbeck writes:

“As soon as Brahms heard the sound of the violin, he pricked up his ears, during the Andante he wiped his eyes, and after the Finale he went into the green room, embraced the young fellow, and stroked his cheeks. When Huberman complained that the public applauded after the cadenza, breaking into the lovely Cantilena, Brahms replied, ‘You should not have played the cadenza so beautifully.'”

How Joshua Bell ended up owning this instrument is a story in its own right: see my interview with Josh Aronson, the director of the soon-to-be released Orchestra of Exiles: The Story of the Israel Philharmonic.”

I can’t speak for Brahms, but Bell’s performance must certainly have been on Huberman’s level. Few renowned soloists play with such élan, put so much energy, enthusiasm into a work likely to have been performed hundreds of times. Not for a moment was there any sense of the violinist’s flirting with auto-pilot – an easy switch often turned on for warhorses. As offhand praise of the orchestra: from Bell’s first entrance, the musicians remained in the background, seemingly as captivated as was the audience by his charismatic presence.

It would be particularly difficult to hazard a guess as to how much credit for the success of the Brahms can be attributed to the instrument itself. Given the instrument’s infamous history and the nine months spent in restoration, one has to give it more than simply second billing. To my ear, the sweetness and evenness of every note regardless of its dynamic would support its claim as being second fiddle to no one.

The first symphony of Mozart, written at the age of nine, while no more than fluff is pleasant fluff. Mozart shows himself as a talent capable of taking any kind of music given to him and incorporating it into his own composing style. Here under the influence of Bach’s youngest son, Johann Christian, Mozart creates a symphony imitative of but not quite up to the charm of Bach’s early Opus 3 symphonies. Although the piece was well played by Langrée and the Mostly Mozart Orchestra, I only question the inconsistent use of vibrato: its absence was clearly intended by the concertmaster, but inconsistently applied by the other string players.

The Schubert 4th Symphony deserves more exposure than it has been given. Its introductory Adagio with its uncertain modulations into distant keys looks backwards to Haydn’s overture to The Creation and forward to Mahler’s mysterious symphonic openings. The Andante in the unusual key of A-Flat Major starts out in true Schubertian lyrical style but two minutes into the movement surprises us with a loud F-Minor chord. This eerie modulation leads to what we would think of today as silent movie music: an accompaniment to a scene of the villain tying the heroine to the rails. The third movement goes way beyond the traditional Minuet and Trio. Its use of syncopation and uneven accents makes it seem like an inebriated parody of itself. The fourth movement is based on a seven-note phrase that is tossed back and forth between the first violins and the flute and oboes. Later abbreviated versions of this motif carry the movement to its foreboding three-sforzando conclusion.

All these works were exactingly detailed by Langrée and the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra – an accomplishment that seems to be the norm as the festival moves into its final week.

Stan Metzger