The Estonian-American conductor Paavo Järvi (CREDITPHOTOGRAPH BY HIROYUKI ITO/GETTY)
Johannes Brahms’s First Piano Concerto—much of which he composed, in an early form, in 1854, at the age of twenty-one, and completed four years later—is, to my ear, the piece in the standard classical repertory that, more than any other, boils over with the wild energies of youth, with its big dreams and big joys, big sorrows and big ideas, and abrupt eruptions of mixed emotion. It’s a work of Brahms’s own rhapsodically stormy youth, and it reflects a flamboyant, defiant musical swagger. Though already awed by Beethoven’s colossal achievements, Brahms put his concerto out into the world with seeming bravado—as if to say, “My First Piano Concerto is longer, harder, and meatier than Beethoven’s”—and took up his predecessor’s gauntlet by composing it in D minor, the key of Beethoven’s titanic Ninth Symphony.
It’s the ultimate in a young person’s classical music, and it was performed last night, at Alice Tully Hall, by the German pianist Lars Vogt and the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen, conducted by Paavo Järvi, with visionary fire and exuberant humor.
As the orchestra’s self-description, “chamber philharmonic,” suggests, it’s a small ensemble—only eighteen violinists, and about fifty-five musicians in all. It’s a young group, and it responds to Järvi like a sports car—and, like a sports car, it gives a heightened feel of the road, of the moment-to-moment physicality of musical performance. The musicians get into it bodily, their heads bopping, a style of performance that’s particularly apt for Brahms. There’s a rock-and-roll element that runs throughout his work, with short, thrusting phrases and the nineteenth-century equivalent of power chords, and Järvi and his orchestra revelled in it. Their vision was matched by that of the pianist, Lars Vogt, who exhibited an imaginative audacity that’s rare in classical music—in music anywhere.Järvi conducted the concerto’s long introduction, its strong opening, with a mercurial plasticity, sculpting phrases and changing tempos with frank and bold flair. When Vogt made his entrance, he did so modestly; he played a Steinway with an unusually bright, bell-like tone, but sounded his notes quietly, to mesh with the orchestra’s intricately detailed voices (in particular the bassoons, basses, and violas), as if to conjure a teeming realm of introspective fantasy.
And then all hell broke loose. When the sprawling first movement, the Maestoso, turned fast and loud, Vogt slammed the keyboard like a man possessed, capturing the nearly demonic element of Brahms’s inner world—a Lisztian wildness without the cackle. In Vogt’s performance, passages of powerful abandon never lost their rocking rhythmic snap, and lyrical passages maintained a firm intellectual command of Brahms’s compositional filigree. The Adagio started at a brisker-than-usual clip that heightened its singability. In lieu of starkness, Vogt and Järvi brought a calm fluidity, a serenity ready to burst with joy and pain alike; that emotional complexity finds its musical expression in subtly daring and modern dissonances, which Vogt brought to the fore.But the shock was the third movement, the motoric Rondo, which Vogt played with a jazzy, dancelike furor. The entire movement—his literal foot-stomping, the sudden syncopations and hairpin-rapid back-and-forths with the orchestra—was a whirl, a mighty expression of the composer’s love of Hungarian and Gypsy music (which he learned about while playing with the violinist Ede Reményi, and later, of course, transmuted into his own Hungarian Dances). I’ve been listening to this concerto obsessively since I was about eighteen; I’ve heard many great recordings and seen an astonishing live performance of it by Peter Serkin (who is among the most innovative classical musicians around), but I’ve never heard anything like what Vogt and the Kammerphilharmonie made of this third movement, which so often comes off as a happy afterthought. Here, the happiness bubbled over into raucous whimsy and actual humor—I had to bite my lip, on several occasions, to suppress my laughter at the inventive wit that Vogt, Järvi, and the musicians discovered in the score, even in its most learned moments (such as the surprising fugue that comes in toward the end).After intermission, Järvi and the orchestra returned to perform Brahms’s Second Symphony, from 1877, which is an altogether different kind of composition, autumnal and rustling with lyrical wind passages. (The Kammerphilharmonie’s wind players are well suited to this music; they have a ripe, juicy, outdoorsy sound. I especially admired the fullness of the solo flute and the oboist’s nectary tone.) In performance, this symphony often comes off as the poised and graceful work of a preternaturally aged composer in his mid-forties. Under Järvi’s guidance, though, the lyricism was pulled taut and the passions were rendered explosive. The exquisitely interpreted quiet sections of the long first movement emphasized the brooding colors of Brahms’s orchestration. When the music built in urgency, Järvi made its outbursts sudden and awesome, with slashing rhythms and harrowingly great contrasts of volume and tempo. Here, too, the small orchestra, with its responsiveness to the conductor and its lack of inhibition, brought something new to the music, baring the frenzies latent in the symphony and in the form-obsessed neoclassicist who wrote it.Seeing this exceptional orchestra, its daring and probing conductor, and the visionary soloist, I wondered whether tradition isn’t worth a little less than it’s valued at. There’s a sense of spiritual wisdom, of vernacular intimacy, in the mid-twentieth-century recordings handed down to us by musicians who may have known Brahms personally (he died in 1897), or knew his friends and disciples, those who were present at premières or early performances of his works. Yet the concert I attended last night offers an idea of “back to Brahms,” a return to an immediate confrontation with the radicality of the music, that suggests a liberating distance from musical teachers, heroes, and legends. This group seemed to play without worrying about Brahms’s acolytes peering over their shoulders; they saw something in his music, and they dared. It’s an approach that runs the risk of utter disaster, and it puts the performers, who expose their musical personalities, their artistic character, at exceptional risk. In this case, the risk brought rare, deep, memorable rewards.
It would be unjust to omit mention of the two encores, a pair of Brahms’s Hungarian Dances, which were played with exaggerated humor by the orchestra and elicited several sly over-the-shoulder winks at the audience from Järvi at moments of idiosyncratic confection. Brahms built these dances from café music, and Järvi honored their lilting, seductive popular quality.P.S.: There’s a story to tell about Brahms and the compositional discipline of his youthful rapture. It coincides peculiarly with a similar story involving Gustave Flaubert, one of his contemporaries. Both the composer and the writer were extravagantly romantic youths. Both fell for older women—Brahms for Clara Schumann, thirteen years his senior, whom he met when he was twenty (she was the wife of his champion, the composer Robert Schumann, and was herself a composer); Flaubert for Élisa Schlésinger, eleven years his senior, whom he met when he was fourteen. Flaubert, who remained in touch with Schlésinger throughout his life, wrote the story of that love into his early works, and then into the first version of “A Sentimental Education,” and then, nearly twenty years later, into the novel’s definitive version. Clara Schumann was Brahms’s musical confidante for much of his life (she died less than a year before he did). And it may well be the case that neither of these affairs was consummated.