By Scott MacClelland
FELIX MENDELSSOHN’S souvenir of his visit to Italy in 1830-31, his “Italian” Symphony, launched Sunday’s Monterey Symphony program in a full-bodied, broadly shaped reading under the purposeful direction of Max Bragado-Darman, the orchestra’s music director. These days, it’s popular for conductors of “authentic” performance practice to take the work at brisker tempi, at the possible risk of blurring fine details. That was not Bragado’s approach. Even the final movement, salterello, a bristling 6/8 meter dance originally from Tuscany, was taken at a relaxed tempo. A typical performance of the symphony lasts about 30 minutes, sometimes less; Bragado’s went to 34.
The piece recycles the best of the classical models, a sonata-allegro first movement and an ABA minuet/trio third movement—whose trio section is itself also in ABA, with its “A” featuring two horns framing a “B” orchestral elaboration.
I have not yet found documentation of Berlioz’ original exposure to the “Italian” Symphony, but it must have been early on; Mendelssohn’s second movement, Andante con moto, is plainly the inspiration for “The Pilgrim’s March” in the French composers’s Harold in Italy composed in 1834. (Berlioz heaped praise on Mendelssohn but the compliment was emphatically not returned.)
Seville-native Juan Pérez Floristán, now 25, may lack the wisdom of age, but he certainly made Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2 his own, giving it an alternatively masculine and feminine character. He pumped up for the powerful bits but grew deeply circumspect at every expressive opportunity to do so. Moreover, he was as attuned to Bragado as the conductor was to him.
The Brahms concerto can never be diminished. It’s a flawed masterpiece—the final rondo movement is congested with an excessive of craft—but it also brings out the best from those who dare to perform it.
At 55-minutes, this performance, like the Mendelssohn symphony, was longer than typical. Its grand opening allegro ran a full 20 minutes, with each of the other three about 10 minutes apiece. In a letter to Clara Schumann, Brahms poo-pooed the second movement, Allegro appassionata, as “a little wisp of a scherzo,” when in fact it is an inspired highlight of the entire work, where bold muscular themes are alternated between the piano and the orchestra. The third movement, Andante, opens and closes with a memorable melody for solo cello, played in this case by the orchestra’s assistant principal, Adelle-Akiko Kearns.
Given the grand scale of the Brahms, I expected no encore. But, lo, Pérez Floristán returned to the keyboard, charmed the audience by describing this his US debut, the felicities of Sunset Center and his hope of returning soon. He then proceeded to play Plangente, a moody tango-habanera by Ernesto Nazareth (1863-1934), a Brazilian contemporary of Elgar, Mahler, Puccini and, stylewise, Scott Joplin.