Brahms: Tragic Overture Op.
da Requiem Op. 20
Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 1
in D minor Op. 15
Austin Symphony (ASO)/Peter Bay
What a year 2013 is
going to be for commemorative celebrations! Verdi and Wagner will be honoured
on the occasion of the 200th anniversaries of their births in 1813,
and Benjamin Britten for the 100th anniversary of his birth in 1913.
In Britten’s case, the
actual birth date is November 22, but conductor Peter Bay couldn’t wait that
long. I don’t blame him; Britten’s greatness only grows with each passing year
and every conscientious music director should be programming his music not only
in 2013, but every year.
The Sinfonia da
Requiem is an early work, written when the composer was 27. Prodigiously
gifted, he had already written a great deal of wonderful music. As always, the
piece was written quickly (in about six weeks, by all accounts) and shows
Britten’s extraordinary talent for creating unusual sonorities – an alto
saxophone makes an unexpected appearance - and transparent textures.
Britten's Struggle with Symphonic Form
As fine as it is, the Sinfonia da Requiem raises the question of Britten’s life long struggle with
symphonic form; he never did write a “symphony” in the traditional sense. He
always hedged the issue by composing works like Sinfonietta Op. 1 (a very
early chamber piece), A Simple Symphony Op. 4 (a work designed to be played
by an amateur string orchestra), and Spring Symphony Op. 44 (which is
actually a large-scale choral work).
Then there is the piece
we heard this evening, Sinfonia da Requiem Op. 20, which is as close to
traditional symphonic form as we get from Britten (photo: right).
I suspect that like
Brahms and many composers before him, Britten was intimidated by the prospect
of having his work measured against the giants of the repertoire – Beethoven’s
nine symphonies, primarily – and more recently, Mahler’s symphonies. He may
also have been discouraged by the huge success enjoyed by William Walton’s Symphony.
with symphonic form aside, he was clearly far more at home with vocal music and
realized early on that he had a rare gift for being able to set text to music.
He could write “absolute” music when the occasion presented itself, but he had
no deep-seated need to express himself in this way. More often he took his
inspiration from poetry and prose.
Britten's Sinfonia de Requiem: Prelude to a Masterpiece
Having said all that,
there is no doubt at all that the Sinfonia da Requiem is symphonic in its
construction. Themes are presented in a more or less traditional way, developed
and then recapitulated. As in most symphonies there are clearly separate
movements although they are joined together. It is an impressive work,
but one with nothing like the expressive power of the masterpiece of Britten’s
maturity, the War Requiem.
The second movement
of the Sinfonia da Requiem functions as the scherzo movement in symphonic form.
Britten gives it the title ‘Dies Irae’ but it pales beside the comparable
movements in the Requiems of Mozart, Berlioz or Verdi. It didn’t help that inthis performance, Peter Bay’s (photo: right) tempo for the Con
anima section was slow and plodding, rather than forward-moving.
On the whole,
however, Bay and the Austin Symphony gave a solid reading of the piece and
deserve credit for reminding Austin listeners of Britten’s importance. Perhaps
later in this commemorative year, Peter Bay will find room for more Britten in
The rest of the
concert was devoted to the music of Brahms.
Brahms' Tragic Overture is a difficult work to bring off because it calls for a large string section, a
resonant hall, and impeccable horn playing; unfortunately, none of these
elements were present in this performance and the results were disappointing.
Bronfman's Brahms Has Austin on its Feet!
The rendering of
Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1, which concluded the concert, was far more
successful. The soloist was one of the most celebrated pianists of his
generation, Yefim Bronfman.
Bronfman, born in Tashkent, immigrated to Israel
when he was fifteen. He studied at Juilliard and Curtis and has been an
American citizen since 1989. He is renowned for his performances of Rachmaninov,
Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky, but he’s equally famous for his readings of Mozart,
Beethoven and Brahms.
Earlier this season,
Bronfman performed Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2 with Rattle and the Berlin
Philharmonic and immediately after his Austin performances, he was scheduled to
repeat Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1 with Maazel and the New York Philharmonic.
In the Austin
performance I attended, Bronfman had excellent rapport with Peter Bay and the ASO.
The balances were ideal and the transitions navigated without a hitch. Soloist Bronfman
tossed off all the technical challenges with no problem whatsoever, and played
the lyrical episodes with grace and beauty. Despite all these positive elements,
however, I felt there was something lacking.
I must confess that I
prefer more ruggedness in my Brahms and, especially in the first movement of
this concerto, more of a sense of struggle. The Adagio likewise was too
comfortable. Bronfman chose a tempo that was too quick to allow for the soulful
bass lines to be as expressive as they can be.
The section in the
Adagio, in which the piano is accompanied only by horns, cellos and basses
playing a low D, needed to be much louder and more sonorous. I noticed that the
basses in particular were content to use a bowing that worked against that
effect. Surely Brahms intended that the “molto
cres. sempre” in the piano part be matched by the accompanying instruments;
it is up to the conductors and the players to find a way of doing that.
The final Rondo is
much more interesting if it has a touch of abandon; once again, Bronfman seemed
too comfortable in his approach.
critique notwithstanding, the Austin audience gave Bronfman a prolonged standing ovation
- albeit not long enough to persuade him to give them an encore.
Labels: Austin Symphony Orchestra, brahms, britten, klassinen musiikki, klassische Musik, musica classica, musique classique, Peter Bay, Yefim Bronfman, 고전 음악, クラシック音楽, 古典音乐, 古典音樂