Dazzling Brahms from Fischer trumps the San Francisco Symphony’s dramatic Stravinsky

United StatesUnited States Stravinsky, Brahms: Sasha Cooke (mezzo-soprano), Nicholas Phan (tenor), Luca Pisaroni (baritone), Julia Fischer (violin), San Francisco Symphony / Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor). Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, 23.2.2024. (HS)

Julia Fischer © Uwe Arens (IMG)


Brahms – Violin Concerto

It has been several years since violinist Julia Fischer played with the San Francisco Symphony. Her debut here was in 2001, and her most recent appearance was in 2014 on the orchestra’s European tour. She was on the program this weekend to play the Brahms Violin Concerto with Esa-Pekka Salonen on the podium.

Their fluency and locked-in approach paid dividends in a performance that was immensely satisfying for its precision and flow.

Originally, the concert was to feature Bruch’s Violin Concerto No.1 and Beethoven’s Romance No.1 in G major, with Michael Tilson Thomas conducting. When the conductor had to withdraw due to his declining health, Salonen stepped in and rearranged the program to showcase Fischer in the Brahms instead.

That was, to put it mildly, a smart move. They had presented the Brahms concerto in December at the Nobel awards concert with the Royal Stockholm Orchestra, so they were already on the same page. This was evident early in the performance heard at Davies Symphony Hall. Salonen led the opening pages with his trademark mix of steely clarity and just enough rhythmic bounce to create a welcome flexibility. Fischer picked up her end of the music with virtuosic flair to the violin entry’s flourish and continued the feeling that the orchestra had established.

The opening Allegro non troppo unfolded with a winning combination of grace and urgency, delivering a welcome sense that the audience was in good hands. The Adagio benefited from a lovely extended oboe solo from associate principal James Button. A little more warmth from the violinist and a less urgent pace would have produced more of a contrast with the outer movements.

The flashy finale, marked Allegro giocoso ma non troppo vivace, relished the acrobatic flights of fancy that surprised listeners when Joseph Joachim played the concerto for the first time. With Fischer and Salonen, the music was sprightly and finished crisply.

Fischer told the audience that she was going to play a Paganini caprice for an encore, but she couldn’t remember which one. She grinned when a voice from the far reaches of the audience responded with ‘all of them!’, and then announced No.17 in E-flat. The tricky, fast-moving phrases leapt from the fiddle with jaw-dropping accuracy, each iteration slightly different from the ones that preceded it. It was delicious.

Stravinsky’s ballet music for Pulcinella, the piece that launched his lifelong fascination with neoclassical style, occupied the first half of the program. Vocal soloists mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke, tenor Nicholas Phan and baritone Luca Pisaroni distinguished themselves with vivid work on the portions of the score missing (or reorchestrated) from the oft-heard suites Stravinsky later compiled.

Cooke was especially fascinating for her serious facial expressions and eloquent emotional singing in arias that emulate opera seria. Tenor Phan avoided vibrato and sang with a plaintive edge to his tone. Both came close to parodying the Baroque style, but that proved brilliantly effective by contrasting their vocal colors with Stravinsky’s modernization of music originally attributed incorrectly to Pergolesi. Baritone Pisaroni captured the droll bass melodies with a sly grin.

Salonen kept tempos moving briskly, even if the orchestral sound lacked the crispness and bite that the best performances of this music can deliver. Most of it felt a bit weighted down. Every now and then, though, things came to life. The parts played by the concerto grosso-style string quintet, arrayed in front of the orchestra, were especially fine, and the trombone-double bass duet came off with appropriate hilarity. Principal trumpet Mark Inouye drove the bus home with brilliant playing of the final, ostinato-like fanfare.

Harvey Steiman

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