There is no questioning that Johannes Brahms’ Opus 15 (first) piano concerto in D minor does not constitute his finest hour as a composer. The first performance on January 22, 1859 was given by Brahms at the piano under the baton of his friend Joseph Joachim. Following the poor audience reception, Brahms wrote to Joachim calling the performance “a brilliant and decisive – failure ….” Brahms was 25 at the time; and he was in the process of working on the concerto at the time he completed his first venture into orchestral writing, his Opus 11 serenade in D major. He clearly had a lot to learn, and he knew it.
Nevertheless, Opus 15 now enjoys a relatively secure place in the repertoire of Brahms’ compositions that are regularly performed. It may not get as much exposure as the second concerto (Opus 83 in B-flat major, not completed until 1881); but it definitely has more than capable advocacy in both the concert hall and on recording. Unfortunately, that advocacy has not received much recent exposure in Davies Symphony Hall. The last time the San Francisco Symphony performed Opus 15 was in February of 2014, when pianist Hélène Grimaud performed with guest conductor Lionel Bringuier. Opening night vividly recalled Brahms’ initial impressions. A relatively new timpanist drowned out the entire ensemble in the opening measure, and neither performers nor attentive listeners recovered from that muddle that ensued over the course of the concerto’s three movements.
Pianist Kirill Gerstein (courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony)
Last night conductor David Robertson returned to the SFS podium, and Kirill Gerstein was his soloist for the first of two performances of Opus 15 being given in San Francisco this week. It was evident from that very opening gesture that Robertson understood how critical it was to balance all participating resources. Robertson not only knew how to keep that timpani line under control but also made it clear through control of dynamics that the opening gesture of the concerto has far more nuance than the raging of a wild bull.
Once the opening gesture has passed, both conductor and soloist still face many challenges. The orchestral introduction goes on at some length before the piano delivers its first utterance. Even then, it takes more than a little time before those utterances move on from intense virtuosity to a passage that actually counts for a theme. Nevertheless, it was clear that both Robertson and Gerstein appreciated that this was a concerto that established itself through its overall flow, rather than pleasant tunes that one can whistle while leaving the hall.
Indeed, that overall flow becomes the very substance of the concerto. Just as the opening gesture can only register with a nuanced reading, the journey through the concerto’s three movements involves energy levels that surge and recede, even settling back almost to utter stillness during the second movement. Both Robertson and Gerstein knew how to escort the attentive listener across the full breadth of those energy levels, capturing all of those “brilliant and decisive” qualities that Brahms had committed to his score pages without ever hinting that the undertaking had been a failure.
Robertson was just as attentive to nuanced detail in the symphony offering of his program, Joseph Haydn’s Hoboken I/102 in B-flat major. This was one of those symphonies that Haydn wrote for his London audience, enjoying his “star status” arising from the promotion of Johann Peter Salomon. “Liberated” from his “servant status” at Eszterháza, Haydn discovered that he knew how to cultivate popularity and enjoyed doing so. Indeed, this symphony not only is rhetorically delightful but also serves up even more surprises than Hoboken I/94 in G major (the symphony that took on the “Surprise” title).
Robertson’s physical technique perfectly managed Haydn’s rhetorical stances. Indeed, Robertson added a few gestures of his own. The first movement was wrapped up with such finality that much of the audience could not resist breaking into applause. Robertson graciously accepted the adulation, turning around to announce that the ensemble would now play three encores (to account for the remaining movements). By the time the performance had progressed to the false endings in the fourth movement, Robertson seemed to be drawing upon techniques of method acting to supplement his conducting, and the spirits behind Haydn’s music could not have been higher.
Far more serious was the “overture” for the evening, Brett Dean’s “Engelsflügel” (wings of angels). This piece grew out of a “tribute” composition for solo piano that Dean wrote to honor one of Brahms’ late works, his Opus 119 set of four solo piano pieces. He would later rework his ideas for an ensemble of winds, brass, and percussion; and that piece was subsequently rescored for full orchestra. Robertson gave the world premiere of the orchestral version in June of 2014 with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, where he is now Chief Conductor and Artistic Director.
Writing as one with a great interest is Brahms’ late pieces for solo piano, I have to say that I felt as if I would need a Geiger counter to detect any traces of Brahms in “Engelsflügel.” Nevertheless, I would hardly want to fault what Dean has achieved with this piece, which is a rich command of instrumental sonorities. I would even go so far as to say that Dean evokes one of the richest palettes for a rhetoric of orchestral blends that any serious listener has encountered since the efforts of Alban Berg. If my own thoughts never homed in on Brahms, there were more than a few moments that recalled Wozzeck drowning in the lake in which he threw the knife with which he had just killed Marie. Brahms may, indeed, be lurking in Dean’s score; but it may be the Brahms whose ideas had been refracted through Berg’s own compositional imagination.