Last night Marek Janowski returned to the podium of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) in Davies Symphony Hall to lead the first of this week’s four subscription concerts. His concerto soloist was violinist Arabella Steinbacher, who last performed with him in Davies in May of 2013, when Janowski led SFS in a performance of Johannes Brahms’ Opus 102 “double” concerto in A minor for violin and cello. This visit marked a significant shift in repertoire with a performance of Paul Hindemith’s 1939 violin concerto, a composition that received its first performance by SFS last night.
This is one of the concertos that Gil Shaham has not yet gotten around to recording in his 1930s Violin Concertos project. On the basis of last night’s performance, he had better get to it sooner rather than later. During the Twenties, Hindemith was a champion of modernism in Germany and even made a few ventures into jazz in some of his piano music. However, it did not take long for the Nazis to oppose his work as “degenerate;” and he finally emigrated to Switzerland in 1938. The violin concerto was commissioned by Willem Mengelberg, Principal Conductor of the Concertgebouw Orchestra (now the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra) in Amsterdam. Mengelberg’s interest in modernism went back to the turn of the century, when he championed the music of both Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler. He conducted the world premiere of Hindemith’s concerto on March 14, 1940 with soloist Ferdinand Helmann. [added 3/14, 6:45 a.m.: One of my readers pointed out to me that Helmann was the Concertmaster of the Concertgebouw Orchestra and that it was not unusual for the Concertmaster to also serve as concerto soloist when appropriate.]
The music is definitely a continuation of the sassy rhetoric that had engaged Hindemith since the Twenties. As both a violinist and a violist, he had a craftsman’s firm command of what could be expected from a virtuoso performer; and Helmann clearly had a generous number of opportunities to command the spotlight when the concerto was premiered. However, Hindemith’s craft extended to all the instruments of the orchestra. As a result, the ensemble is never there merely for the sake of accompaniment. Active engagements are always taking place, not only between soloist and ensemble but also within the ensemble itself.
Steinbacher and Janowski made the perfect pair for a “first contact” experience with this concerto. Her command of virtuoso technique was rock-solid; but there was also an in-the-moment spontaneity to the rhetoric with which she introduced her thematic material and then played with it (in just about every semantic interpretation of that verb) at exhaustive (but never exhausting) length. Janowski then managed that same measure of activity on the ensemble side, making sure that every instrumental voice had its respective say without ever letting the soloist be rudely upstaged.
During the second half of the last century, Hindemith’s star rapidly faded under accusations that he was too stodgy and “academic.” We have every reason to believe that he had consistently been a first-rate teacher; but there is no reason to assume that his personality was stuffy. This concerto made it clear that the composer’s character was anything but. The music was as joyous as it was scrupulously crafted, and it is about time that more conductors figure out how to bring the many delights of this composer to the attention of more audiences.
Janowski predisposed reception of this concerto by introducing it with a rip-snorting account of his overture selection. That overture was Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 62, which he wrote for a performance of the play Coriolan by Heinrich Joseph von Collin. As is well known, Beethoven had a deep appreciation for the rhetorical impact of full-stop silence; and that appreciation can be traced all the way back to the three Opus 2 piano sonatas he dedicated to Joseph Haydn, another composer who knew just as well how to use silence to the greatest advantage.
Opus 62 distinguishes itself with bursts of sound that are almost like thunderclaps, and Beethoven followed each with a silence that seems calculated to allow the attentive listener to savor the reverberations. Janowski clearly had such listeners in mind. Each of those bursts was a real shocker; and Janowski clearly shaped them individually to avoid any trace of here-we-go-again monotony. The result was some of the most finely-crafted edge-of-your-seat tension that one is likely to find in Beethoven’s rhetoric at its most dramatic.
An expressive sense of drama also highlighted the symphony performance after the intermission. This was Johannes Brahms’ Opus 98 (fourth) in E minor. In contrast to the first symphony in C minor (Opus 68), this is a symphony that sustains the minor mode to the bitter end. Indeed, its final movement is a passacaglia on a bass line from Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 150 cantata, Nach Dir, Herr, verlanget mich (I long to be near you, Lord). However, Brahms is less interested in the peace that comes with death than he is with the despairing agonies of that longing.
Nevertheless, Janowski was focused more on providing a rich account of Brahms’ sonorities than he was in playing up despair to maximum level. Here, again, the attentive listener encounters an impressive diversity of blends among strings, winds, and brass. (Percussion is limited to the timpani except for the use of a triangle in the third movement scherzo, but it is clear that Brahms put a lot of thought into how to use that triangle to maximum advantage!) Janowski’s impeccable sense of balance was complemented by his equally perceptive approach to the pacing of each of the four movements. The rhetoric was always there in all of its darkest shades, but Janowski knew exactly how to avoid wallowing in it. The result was an overall account of this symphony that vibrated with the same immediacy that made the performances of both Beethoven and Hindemith in the first half so compelling.