by Daniel Hathaway

Julia Fischer

Circled by video cameras — including a giraffe-like “jib” that hovered ominously over the front seats on stage right — Franz Welser-Möst and The Cleveland Orchestra played the first in a split set of four all-Brahms concerts with the outstanding violin soloist Julia Fischer on Thursday evening at Severance Hall.

The first pair of performances were being recorded for eventual release on DVD and television and over the course of four days, the concerts would include two different overtures and symphonies and four iterations of the violin concerto. Thursday’s concert featured works written in the seven-year period between 1878 and 1885: the Academic Festival Overture, the Violin Concerto, and the Symphony No. 4 in e minor.

Sometimes concert programs are designed to challenge the audience or to juxtapose works in interesting and revelatory ways. Sometimes — as in a retrospective art exhibition — programs are curated for the sheer pleasure of enjoying a body of work brought together in one place. The all-Brahms lineup allowed last weekend’s audiences to experience several shades of Johannes Brahms’s musical personality in superb performances by a conductor and ensemble who know instinctively how to bring out the essence of Brahms without distortion or caricature.

Distortion? Caricature? In the wrong hands, Brahms can sound turgid, heavy and even grumpy. In Thursday’s lean and expressive readings, the composer’s novel variations on classical forms, textures and techniques came clearly to the fore, and revealed his infrequent but delightful sense of humor. — a latent trait Brahms shared with Johann Sebastian Bach.

When Bach, who had never attended university, was invited to join an academic society in Leipzig in 1747, he presented its erudite members with a puzzle canon that needed to be solved. When Brahms — also innocent of an academic background — was offered an honorary university degree, he responded with an overture seeded with student drinking songs. Welser-Möst and the orchestra gave an unhurried, understated reading of the Academic Festival Overture that revealed its good-hearted humor and downplayed the raucousness of its borrowed themes. At one point, while Gaudeamus igitur was holding forth in the brass, Welser-Möst was most interested in highlighting a flurry of violin passages.

One of the drawbacks of hearing the first concert in a series is experiencing a performance that isn’t quite settled yet but that will probably find its groove as the run progresses. The superb violinist Julia Fischer seemed to be trying out some new ideas in the concerto on Thursday aimed at making a familiar work new and fresh through an unusual suppleness of approach to dynamics, tempo and transitions. Even if the whole work didn’t quite gel, her tone was continuously alluring, uniform from top to bottom of her range, and the cough-prone audience sat in complete silence during her commanding first-movement cadenza. Alas, and in front of the cameras, a misplaced cue early on led a handful of upper strings to venture a premature entrance.

Frank Rosenwein’s splendid second-movement oboe solo was beautifully supported by his wind colleagues, who achieved a wonderful blend. The main theme of the finale can sound craggy and disjunct, but Julia Fischer turned it into a longer line which infused the whole movement with purpose and direction.

In many ways, the fourth symphony was the star of the program and Welser-Möst and the Orchestra played it with a fine sense of structure and musical sculpture. The Harmonie or wind section was superb throughout, tuning chords masterfully and adding a whole palette of color to the excellent strings. Leave it to Brahms to end his final symphony with such an antique form as the passacaglia — based on the bass line of a cantata attributed to Bach— refashioned to his own purposes and featuring some arrestingly modern effects. Principal flutist Joshua Smith crowned that movement with a breathtaking solo variation.

Published on January 14, 2014

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