By Scott MacClelland
MAX BRAGADO-DARMAN has made it clear that his last season as Monterey Symphony music director will showcase works—many that are found infrequently in concert programs—that he believes deserve to be heard. Case in point, Sunday’s performance at Sunset Center of Mozart’s last piano concerto and Brahms’ first. The soloist in both was Kun Woo Paik, a smart choice and an enlightened artist.
If you look at or listen to the four concertos by Johannes Brahms—two for piano, one for violin and one for violin and cello—you will find certain unsolved technical problems in all of them. Notwithstanding, Brahms’ First Piano Concerto, in D Minor, retains its dominance as the greatest of the four. At 25 minutes, the massive first movement begins with a majestic but ominous orchestral introduction, with pounding timpani and angry trills on the strings, that would have become the beginning of the composer’s first symphony. (The official First Symphony, in C Minor, starts in similar fashion, but without trills.)
Brahms had begun the piece when he was 21 as a sonata for two pianos following the rapid decline of his mentor, Robert Schumann. But the substance of his music exceeded the capacity of its conception, hence its move to a nascent symphony and then its definitive form as a concerto. And what a concerto! Indeed, a reinvention of the concept.
The first movement, following the symphonic introduction, traces the outline of the classical sonata, providing the soloist’s entry with the standard repeat of exposition. Here, Kun Woo Paik began what would be a highly personal take on the work’s palette of ideas. This trope, obviously worked out with Bragado in advance, took on a whole different persona with the introduction of the lyrical second theme, in which both pianist and conductor conveyed some of the most memorable moments of the performance. In particular, Bragado shaped and molded the winds with a delicate touch and phrasing sensitive to dynamic shadings. Yet, for their common purpose, a few moments drifted out of sync between them.
The second movement, Adagio, was Brahms’ loving portrait of by then the recently widowed Clara Schumann. It was conceived on devotional, even ecclesiastical, terms by the composer and acknowledged as such by its subject. The Hungarian-flavored final rondo, which owes a debt to the corresponding movement of Beethoven’s Concerto in C Minor, introduces a brief and entirely unexpected fugue for the orchestra alone about halfway through. In both the first and, especially, last movements the pianist got big solos. The movement gathered increasing propulsion as the performance closed in on its climactic conclusion, 50 minutes after it began. Solos among the winds and brass deserve credit, as do passages played by the concertmaster and principal of the second violins.
The stage at Sunset Theater was so packed that the first desk of the first violins played with their backs to the audience just to accommodate the space required for piano and soloist. This was equally true for the opening Mozart Concerto in B-flat, his final essay in the form. (He completed the Clarinet Concerto later in 1791, his last year.) Some have remarked that the work is tinged with resignation. I don’t hear that, though there are fleeting moments where a shadow crosses the image. And for what it’s worth, Mozart, having lost both parents and several of his own children in infancy, was already on record as not fearing death, but describing it as a friend. In a way, this concerto, like his Die Zauberflöte, is a summation, a lyrical serenity.
Conductor and soloist embraced the first movement and the middle Larghetto in relaxed and generous terms. No storm or stress ruffled the piece or its performance. Mozart frequently deceives the listener into believing that all he needed to do was turn on the tap and let the music flow of its own accord. This is one of those pieces; it masks the effort he needed to work his magic. Mostly, I believe the choice by Bragado was fully intentional. Not as popular as many of the composer’s earlier concertos, this was a welcome opportunity to bond with the elderly—at age 35—Mozart.
The final movement begins with a characteristic rondo theme, but in fact it is in sonata form, complete with fully worked out development section. As the late William Malloch observed, “Brahms must have known and loved this last movement. At the point the orchestra rounds out the exposition, we can hear a clear anticipation of the sportive opening rondo tune from the finale of Brahms’ own Second Piano Concerto.” Malloch added, “It is no surprise that Brahms’ Second is also in B-flat.”