Cool and Sleek Brahms from Welser-Möst

 United StatesUnited States Brahms: Julia Fischer (violin), Cleveland Orchestra, Franz Welser-Möst (conductor) Severance Hall, Cleveland, 12.1.2014 (MSJ)

Brahms:Tragic Overture
Violin Concerto in D major
Symphony No. 2 in D major


Over a hundred years ago, some wag in Boston remarked that Symphony Hall’s emergency exit sign should be altered to read “exit in case of Brahms.” But poor Brahms came a long way during the last century, even if his popularity has waned in recent years with the rise of Bruckner’s reputation. But one place that has always been firmly behind Brahms is Cleveland, which once held the distinction of having not Beethoven’s Fifth but Brahms’ First as the most-performed work in its history (according to Herbert Kupferberg’s The Book of Classical Music Lists, from almost thirty years ago—has anyone counted lately?).

The love of Brahms still holds in Cleveland, where last weekend saw a mini-festival of four concerts including his Symphony No. 4 on Thursday and Friday, Symphony No. 2 on Saturday and Sunday and Violin Concerto in all four programs. Just as in the orchestra’s mini-festival of Beethoven and Shostakovich back in the fall, this mixed weekend of programming offered a chance to compare and contrast works. I hope the orchestra continues with this concept—although, alas, I was only able to catch one of the concerts this time around.

The young German violinist Julia Fischer is a formidable talent with a powerful stage presence. Without doing anything exaggerated or extreme, Fischer nonetheless exudes an aura of certainty, appearing—and, more importantly, sounding—completely possessed by the music she plays. This sense of unshakeable conviction permeated her performance of the Brahms Violin Concerto. It was absolutely unsentimental, yet never unemotional, always controlled, yet never rigid. The first movement’s changeable moods were woven together with a lucid continuity, yet each moment of warmth, fury, and vulnerability came to life. In the slow movement, Fischer made her violin sing sweetly, without ever letting the line sag into the sort of diabetic coma that many performances achieve. The finale was exhilarating without ever being rushed, bringing an outstanding rendition to a close. Welser-Möst and the orchestra matched Fischer effectively, the violinist’s refusal to mope matching the conductor’s reticence.

The other big work on the program, though, was not nearly as electrifying. Granted, Brahms’ Symphony No. 2 is completely non-electric in that it celebrates country life and nature. But Welser-Möst had the orchestra play it straight and plain, not without tender affection, but restraining any adrenaline until the closing bars of the finale. It’s certainly an accurate rendition of the printed page, but I can’t help but think Brahms wanted a little more personal inflection than that. I fall into that camp of listeners who think Brahms intentionally “underwrote” his scores to allow performers to put their own stamp on them. When Julia Fischer performed the Violin Concerto, she didn’t violate the score, but she was nonetheless brimming with personality. Welser-Möst’s take on the symphony was more rigorously classical, cool, and sleek. The orchestra gave the conductor everything he asked for, coloring the non-interventionist rendition with handsome geniality. The lyrical warmth of the first movement was conveyed with clarity, the anxious yearn of the second was kept understated. The third movement interlude was delicate without turning overly precious, and the finale was kept fleet, with textures never clotting.

The concert opener was Brahms’ Tragic Overture, which was given the same sleek treatment. Here, the piece responded to it more dramatically. Welser-Möst’s focus kept the rather academic work focused and compelling, and the Cleveland Orchestra’s playing found a balance both vital and lithe.

Mark Sebastian Jordan