Gustavo Dudamel conducted the LA Philharmonic in the final installment of the Brahms Unbound series this weekend with performances of the Double Concerto in A minor, Op. 102 for Violin and Cello, with French brothers Renaud and Gautier Capuçon on violin and cello respectively, and the Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Op. 98.
Unlike previous programs in this series which also featured one modern work on each program, this was, fittingly, an all-Brahms program showcasing his last two major orchestral works.
Both the Double Concerto and the Fourth Symphony are serious, musically complicated works from a composer just entering his last decade of life. Despite Brahms’ description of the Double Concerto as a “folly,” it is anything but, opening with its bold forte statement by the orchestra playing in unison in the home key of A minor followed only five measures later by a long solo cello cadenza which itself is resolved by the second theme played (dolce) by the woodwinds, and quickly picked up by the solo violin. The two solo instruments then trade arpeggio-like passages until the orchestra reenters, this time, fortissimo, with the opening theme in its development.
The second movement (Andante) opens with a simple four-note theme begun by two horns and joined immediately by the rest of the woodwinds. The solo violin and cello then take up the development of the theme marked by Brahms to be expressive.
The finale, marked Vivace non troppo, is somewhat reminiscent of the finale of Brahms’ Violin Concerto in both time and marking, beginning with the theme played in staccato-like fashion very softly, first by the solo cello and then the solo violin, before a quick crescendo when the entire orchestra takes over.
From the first notes of the Double Concerto on Saturday night, it was apparent that this would be a special performance. The orchestra was very tight and well balanced, and Dudamel carved every nuanced phrase, weaving the orchestral part in between the solo playing without stepping on any French toes. The two brothers played like they were joined at the hip — energetically, precisely, and in perfect lockstep with each other — especially in their encore of the Handel-Halvorsen Passacaglia for Cello and Violin, which got a stading ovation from the audience. Dudamel’s reading of the Double Concerto was not showy and he did not attempt any experiments with the tempo.
Most notable was the sound of Gautier Capuçon’s cello, a 1701 Matteo Goffriller. The loud, deep, rich tone overshadowed the 1737 Guarneri violin played by his brother and could be heard even when the orchestra was playing at their loudest. It was truly a beautiful thing to hear.
The concert concluded with Brahms’ monumental Symphony No. 4 in E minor. The symphony begins in a very understated way with a descending two-note interval in the violins from B to G echoed by the woodwinds as if it is a continuation of some simple musical phrase rather than the opening of one of the great 19th-century symphonies. Brahms then expands and weaves the theme into an intricate musical exposition finally ending powerfully with an E minor chord played by the whole orchestra.
The second movement begins with a sparse melody by the horn picked up immediately by the rest of the woodwinds over a delicate pizzicato accompaniment by the strings for an entire 29 measures before the strings take over the melody with their bows. The contrast feels like holding one’s breath for 29 measures and then finally breathing again. Brahms then develops the theme before finally returning to its original form.
The third movement is unlike any other in Brahms’ symphonies. Marked Allegro giocoso (lively or playful), the movement, in C major with an added piccolo and triangle, is like a joyous sorbet between the foreboding E minor key of the first and last movements.
The finale is a 19th-century classical-romantic version of an 18th-century form usually described as a passacaglia (similar to Bach). Although Brahms repeats the eight-measure theme 30 times, there is never the feeling that it is repetitive. The movement begins with the trombones (who sat silently for the first three movements as they do in Brahms’ First Symphony), horns and woodwinds, and is developed in various iterations of the theme in ¾ time finally concluding with a coda which feels like it rushes to its conclusion.
As he did with the Brahms First Symphony, Dudamel slowed the tempo of the Fourth primarily in the first and last movements. Although the tactic worked with the First Symphony, making it sound more majestic, the Fourth seemed to drag in places, especially the last movement. Also, in the finale, the timpani overshadowed the first theme played staccato by the trombones and pizzicato by the strings, while at other times the trombones seemed too loud. Notwithstanding the slower tempos in the first and last movements, the inner two movements were perfect, contrasting the sentimentality of the Andante with the exuberance of the third movement. Dudamel had the orchestra sounding warm and lush and there was standout playing by all sections.
As an encore, Dudamel added a spirited rendition of the crowd-pleasing Brahms Hungarian Dance No. 5, which he playfully performed, perhaps for the movie theater crowd for whom this concert was being video recorded.
All in all the Brahms Unbound series was successful, showcasing the still-young Dudamel’s ever maturing interpretations of Brahms’ major orchestral works. Missing from the series, however, were two masterpieces and staples of the orchestral repertoire, the Tragic Overture and the Variations on a Theme by Haydn.