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Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Brahmsian Color

Classical Review

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More than in any other music, Brahms is the sound of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra in the era of Andreas Delfs, which ends in June. A favorite of Delfs, Brahms' Symphony No. 4 returned one more time in the concert I heard on Saturday evening.

The lush, warm sound of the orchestra-the sound that Delfs built-is at its apex in Brahms. The tempo of the first movement was a little more stately than in previous Delfs performances. It's an example of his willingness to find a fresh approach to a familiar piece each time it comes around. Delfs' strength in Brahms is the long line, giving the music arch and shape. It's a testament to conductor and musicians that in the final two movements the burnished, Brahmsian color was retained in quick excitement.

Besides real Brahms there was faux-Brahms on the program. Joseph Joachim, who famously played Brahms' violin concerto in his day, was one of the great soloists of the 19th century. (For a time he played the Stradivarius violin that Frank Almond now plays.) I did not know he was a composer before hearing his Elegische Overture of 1877 in this concert. Joachim's music has the elements of Brahms' style, but there is no spark of genius behind it, and no melodic gift. Nevertheless, it was interesting to hear.

Brahms began his career championed by Robert Schumann, and after Schumann's death continued a close friendship (at least) with Schumann's widow Clara, a great pianist. The historical links in this well-planned program continued with Schumann's Piano Concerto in A minor, performed by the Argentine pianist Ingrid Fliter. She is a strong-willed, physical musician. The final movement was brilliant, displaying Fliter's huge, impressive technique. Another highlight was the piano/clarinet duet of the second movement, with Todd Levy and Fliter answering one another's tender melodies.

As good as she is, though, Fliter's performance was oddly unsatisfying. She continually exaggerated and pressed the short phrase, rather than finding the longer, overarching architecture of the music. Fliter left the impression that there was more athlete than poet at the piano.