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Review: Amazing Brahms Symphony at the Yale Philharmonia

The Yale Philharmonia, led by Maestro Peter Oundjian, reached new heights in its Friday night concert with Brahms's Fourth Symphony, Op 98. The performance of the first movement alone proved how far the Philharmonia has come since it began working with Oundjian last year — it was probably the best rendition of the first movement I've heard in concert. The sense of scope, structure, and pacing was impeccable.

Over the last century, there has been a tendency to slow down interpretations of Brahms's works. In an article by Bernard Sherman, "Tempos and Proportions in Brahms: Period Evidence," Sherman observes that "pre-1946 conductors average about 10% longer [than the premiere of the piece], while a sample of post-war conductors average a full 23% longer." The Philharmonia's performance moved very nicely and never dragged like other heavy/lethargic/grandiose interpretations (e.g. Sanderling's recording). Although Woolsey Hall has too much reverb for most pieces (such as the Prokofieff concerto later in the program), it melded together the sounds of the orchestra perfectly for the Brahms. The sound was nice and lush, the bass instruments were full and supportive, and the violins sounded clear. The overall effect was phenomenal. There was lots of rhythmic "oomph" to the performance, making off-beat accents even more excitingly off-kilter. A few times, such as at the end of the exposition, the brass was a little overpowering, but it hardly detracted. The musicians smoothly and clearly passed the musical line around in the development. The accompanying instruments at the end of recap, however, could have been a little softer to support the soloist for a more intimate sound.

The second movement had a strong horn opening, the woodwinds were tender (especially the wonderful clarinets). In this movement, too, there was a great sense of pacing. Occasionally, though, there could have been more of an agogic accent on the downbeat or a little more rubato at the end of a phrase as a small breath before continuing. I would have appreciated a hair more time during these transitions to savor those beautiful moments. The strings were perfect on the second theme, and there was a fantastic build-up to the climax before the recap. Maybe it would have been appropriate to unleash a little more in those passionate moments?

The third movement is very difficult to pull off since the composition itself tends to meander. I lost interest several times in this movement. (As a side note to the percussionist on the triangle, be careful not to play that thing too loudly — the percussion carries extremely well in Woolsey.) The fourth movement meanders a little, too, but it had an exquisite flute solo, generally strong playing, and a powerful ending. After it finished, I wondered if the Philharmonia spent most of the time rehearsing the first and second movements. It seemed like less time was spent bringing out and sculpting phrases, so they weren't as finished as the conception of the first movement. Oundjian's conducting style is very involved, and it's apparent that the orchestra greatly respects him. Overall, it was a phenomenal performance.

The Way it Goes, by composer Martin Bresnick, continues a long programmatic tradition going back to Berlioz. The beginning was full of interesting counterpoint in the brass that produced a striking effect. Although it didn't seem to have much direction as a concert work, it would be effective as a cinematic score. I'm not sure what sort of movie it would be best for, though, because it the sound effects were a mixed bag. Moments that were supposed to be surprising or scary often came across as campy. I'm sure this piece would make more sense with a visual component, but it left me with a lot of questions about what was going on and why it ended so abruptly. I did love the distant, foreboding oboe, though.

And now for Prokofieff's 2nd Piano Concerto, Op. 16. This is one of my very favorite pieces in all of music, so it pained me to hear the orchestra so lacking in articulation, especially for a piece like this where it really matters. Of course it was a problem in the first movement, but by the time they got to the second movement it turned into such a soupy experience that any orchestral interjections just sounded bland. The same could be said of quicker passages in the third movement and all the chaos of the finale. The menacing tuba in the last movement cut through it all, though, and the hulking introduction to the third movement sent shivers down my spine. The pianist, Yang Liu, had quite a task before her, as this is one of the most difficult pieces in the entire piano concerto repertoire, and she did very well. All of the high melody notes in the piano had a beautiful, clear ring, and her technique was clearly capable of tackling this tour de force. Sometimes the phrasing was a little vertical and it seemed like she was more focused on the pile of notes at hand. It was an impressive performance, but it was a little too safe to be an exhilarating performance.

The first two movements of the Brahms symphony alone made this concert an exceptional one. Their rendition of the first movement in particular was polished enough for a top record label.

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