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Wednesday, Aug. 27, 2008

Brahms Revisited

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  From March 17-26, 2006, Andreas Delfs led the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra in a remarkable Brahms Festival, a series of concerts canvassing the great German master's symphonies, concertos and immortal Deutsches Requiem. Now, as Maestro Delfs begins his 12th and final season as MSO music director, he has chosen not only to revisit all four Brahms symphonies, but also to record them for release on CD.

  Why does Brahms deserve special attention? "[2008-'09] being my last season in Milwaukee, I wanted to do one more time what best represents what the MSO and I have accomplished over the past 11 years, and what I love to conduct more than any other symphonic music," Delfs says.

  In the MSO, there is a "palette of colors we have cultivated, the honesty and integrity of our music making," he adds. "I really think no American orchestra plays Brahms better right now."

  The large output of works composed by Brahms (1833-1897) up to age 40 is remarkable for its neglect of the orchestra. It was not until 1876, after lengthy, intermittent but passionate work, that he completed the C Minor Symphony, Op. 68. The long delay is best attributed to the enormous burden thrust upon him by people like Robert Schumann, who, in his influential article "New Paths," hailed the then 20-year-old Brahms in almost Messianic terms. All his life, Brahms faced invidious comparisons to the old masters-principally Beethoven.

  The serious tone of the much-labored-over C Minor Symphony was reacted to almost explicitly in Brahms' D Major Symphony, Op. 73, which followed the next year. But despite its sunny disposition and sense of released tension, the D Major in no way falls short of Brahms' hallmark logic of construction and proportion.

  The Third Symphony in F Major, Op. 90, came six years later and, despite its heroically bright tone, is most notable for its economy and direct expression. The work's most innovative stroke is a quiet and serene ending, which was quite unusual for its time. Symphony No. 4 in E Minor, Op. 98 was completed just one year after its immediate predecessor. It's a strange work, standing quite apart from its cohorts. The colorful, picturesque character of the first three movements gives way to a finale that is something of a throwback, a passacaglia leading inexorably to a tragic coda. The work possesses a prevailing sense of "long ago and far away." Solemn trombones, first imbuing the finale of Symphony No. 1 with a sense of majesty and arrival, now reappear in the closing of No. 4.

  We have come full circle. The Fourth, as Delfs describes, is his personal favorite, given "its range of emotion, from the most intense warmth and human generosity to the raw and unbridled anger that ends the last movement."

  Concertgoers will once more bear witness to the affinity both conductor and orchestra have with Johannes Brahms, whose music Delfs describes as his "native language."

  Symphony No. 3 will be performed Sept. 26-28; Symphony No. 4 on March 6-7; Symphony No. 2 on April 24-26; and Symphony No. 1 on June 5-7.