By Scott MacClelland
For its season finale, the Monterey Symphony revived the last and least performed of the four big concertos by Brahms, the “Double” in A Minor. On Saturday night in Carmel, with Max Bragado-Darman on the podium, violinist Elmar Oliveira and cellist Nathaniel Rosen tackled the work’s uniquely formidable challenges, chief among them persuading the audience of its merits.
The process is complicated by those moments of awkward voice-leading in the strings, starting with the exposed cadenza on the solo cello that comes right after the orchestra’s introduction of the first (main) theme. Rosen, like Oliveira a Tchaikovsky Competition gold medalist, found that unforgiving solo unsettling, as so many fine cellists have—even the great János Starker stumbled in his Philips recording with Henryk Szeryng and Bernard Haitink—but went on to an otherwise unperturbed and satisfying performance.
The problem with the concerto, which afflicts only the first movement, is of mind over matter. In one of his less vitriolic complaints about Brahms, Tchaikovsky wrote, “He is certainly a great musician, even a master, but his mastery overwhelms his inspiration.” Composed to remedy a long-standing rift with his valued personal friend, Joseph Joachim, the pianist Brahms sought critical input from the great Hungarian violinist and wound up with a flawed compromise. While it makes formal, harmonic sense, a clumsy gesture conspicuously burdens the first violins high up in their most exposed register.
But the fatigue of the concerto’s opening movement is then lifted permanently by the lovely, lilting andante and the bold sonata-rondo finale, which whips up a froth of propulsive energy. The reading ended on a high note and drew an enthusiastic standing ovation from the audience, which was rewarded with Johan Halvorsen’s virtuosic variations for violin and cello inspired by the passacaglia from Handel’s Suite in G Minor for harpsichord (itself highly virtuosic.)
The program’s second half, the orchestra considerably enlarged as required, was split between two concert chestnuts, Liszt’s Les Preludes and Respighi’s Pines of Rome. The Liszt got polite applause, notwithstanding a most worthy demonstration by Bragado. If he might have turned over some unexpected surprises, he by no means short-shrifted the score. (The fault, in my view, lies with classical radio stations that play the piece to death; without fresh ears open to its bold originality it is unfortunately consigned to just another bit of classical background music.)
Likewise the vivacious Respighi, which, at least, goes the extra mile to get into the audience’s face. Thanks to its spectacular orchestration, the portrait of children playing amid the Pines of the Villa Borghese sounds more like the blaring rush hour in Times Square. The wily composer also knows how use his forces for effects that range from the subtly nuanced to the powerfully stentorian, as in the Pines near a Catacomb. The nocturnal Pines of the Janiculum (a high hill west of the Tiber) culminated in the recorded song of the small nightingale, played loud enough here to give any feline predator pause. Lastly, and with kudos to Bragado, the Roman legions marched past the Pines of the Appian Way at a credible pace instead of the quick time favored by most conductors. (These solders were coming home, not charging off to battle.) At the finale, and to underscore their authority, Bragado placed antiphonal trumpets in the balcony. The effect was hair-raising.