The second instalment of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s mini Brahms festival began with the composer’s most irreverent work: The Academic Festival Overture, where he pokes gentle fun at just about everything – academia, academics etc. It was an inspired way to begin an evening which was predominantly serious in tone.

I’ve always considered the Double Concerto for Violin and Cello, Brahms’ last orchestral score, rather gruff and dour, like the composer at that stage of his life, but, seeing it performed live, it became more like the musical olive branch that it was intended to be. Brahms offered it in an attempt at reconciliation with his estranged friend, the violinist Josef Joachim, after a rift caused by Brahms’ typically chivalrous defence of Joachim’s wife, when he suspected her of an affair a decade earlier. At the risk of sounding “wet”, seeing the spontaneous embrace of the two soloists, SSO concertmaster Andrew Haveron and Principal Cellist Umberto Clerici, at the conclusion of their performance, it made me realise the importance of friendship in music, and, indeed, life.

The work opens like a (somewhat) trenchant statement with an expansive recitative on the cello, and dialogue begins with both soloists contrasting the chief subjects, releasing elegantly into the warmth and lyricism of the second after the defiance of the first. Sir Donald Tovey described it as ”the broadest theme in all music” (Brahms’ heavenly breadth?). The soloists spun out the lyrical passages affectionately but then rightly acknowledged Brahms’ determination not to linger in passages which give unalloyed pleasure. They then captured the robust good humour of the paprika flavoured finale. This was a magnificently dignified  and sensitive performance, with perfect balance between the soloists, which highlighted the depth of talent and soloistic brilliance among the SSO’s senior members.

The climax (I use the term advisedly) of the evening came with the Australian/Ukrainian Alexander Gavrylyuk in Brahms’ titanic First Piano Concerto, Op. 15. The first movement contains surely some of the angriest music ever composed, especially by a composer subsequently noted for his veiled sentiments and emotional restraint. The element of human struggle in this music eclipses anything by Mahler. If the Double Concerto is a musical olive branch, the Opus 15 is equally surely a thunderbolt hurled furiously at the world. I always love the way, after the vehemence of the orchestral introduction, the soloist almost tiptoes in, rather like the coy piano entry after the majestic introduction to Mozart’s grandest Piano Concerto, K.503. Except here, Gavrylyuk played this passage beautifully and affectingly, but not affectedly, nuanced with even a discreet touch of rubato and proceeded to capture every every kaleidoscopic shade of this mainly storm-tossed movement. His octave outbursts, massive trills and negotiation of the movement’s gnarly nodal passages superbly controlled, with a perfect orchestral balance maintained by conductor David Robertson. The second movement now leads a dual existence among scholars and commentators as a coded love song to Clara Schumann and as a lament for her recently departed husband and Brahms’ mentor, Robert. Either way soloist and orchestra created a world of their own with just the right Innigkeit – wistfully withdrawn but an oasis of celestial tranquillity with an undertow of stoicism after the turmoil of the preceding movement. In the relatively sprightly finale (after the rather dour D minor opening) Gavrylyuk and the orchestra produced some lovely sounds: I especially savoured the nimble interplay between the horns and woodwind in the fughetta towards the end.

The Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s Brahms Revelation: Favourite Concertos is at the Sydney Opera House until September 3

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