Vänskä Leads a Mixed Brahms Bag

United StatesUnited States  Brahms: Renaud Capuçon (violin), Gautier Capuçon (cello), Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Osmo Vänskä (conductor). Symphony Center, Chicago, 19.10.2012 (JLZ)

Brahms:  Double Concerto in A minor, Op. 102
: Symphony No. 1 in D Minor

Two major works by Johannes Brahms gave Chicago audiences the opportunity to hear the acclaimed brothers Renaud and Gautier Capuçon (on violin and cello, respectively) in the composer’s late Double Concerto with Osmo Vänskä and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Performances of this venerable score rarely involve soloists with such closely matched technical and expressive abilities. From the opening cello pitches in the first movement to the resounding sonorities of the Finale’s last chord, it was a pleasure to hear these two. Each performed his solo passages with élan, and in the passages where they played together they gave the impression of a single performer—one anticipating the other. And while Gautier worked from the score, he often watched either Vänska or his brother intently, giving a sense of chamber music to many of Brahms’s intimate sounds.

The first movement had a refined, somewhat austere tone. The sound was full without being excessively romantic, and it allowed the soloists’ lines to emerge clearly and exuberantly.  A warmer, richer sound graced the second movement, with nicely executed phrases and resonant sonorities. In the Finale the tone color became richer and fuller, and the soloists had some fine exchanges with the orchestra, offering sturdy support. Yet the focus remained on the soloists—polished, easygoing and commanding—in their brilliant performance.

If only that same sense of effortlessness had enhanced the performance of Brahms’ First Symphony. While the introduction was convincing, the exposition seemed studied and lacked intensity, and although the structure was clearly articulated, there was a lack of continuity—also in the second movement, because of the relatively slow tempo. The contrast with the first movement was palpable, but its pacing emphasized individual musical ideas at the expense of the phrases. The third movement was rushed, even though it was technically well done, but the brisk tempo made the conclusion somewhat abrupt. Vänskä proceeded quickly to the Finale, with a convincing introduction, and the main theme was similarly effective. Yet as before, each of the sections did not seem to cohere, and instead left an episodic taste. However, the result was persuasive enough to bring the audience to its feet.

James L. Zychowicz