Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

November 14, 2016

Bewitching Brahms

Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Hartford, CT
November 11–13, 2016
by Michael J. Moran

For the second “Masterworks” program of its 73rd season, the HSO presented a full concert of music by Johannes Brahms, whom their web site calls “one of the most captivating masters of musical form” and quotes as saying, “It is not hard to compose, but what is fabulously hard is to leave the superfluous notes under the table.” No superfluous notes could be heard in this rewarding program.

HSO Music Director Carolyn Kuan opened it not with one of Brahms’ two concert overtures but with two of his 21 Hungarian Dances. Arranged for orchestra from his original piano settings of traditional Gypsy melodies, these were the most popular of all Brahms’ works during his lifetime. The HSO gave bracing accounts of the famous fifth and less familiar seventh dances. 

Cho-Liang Lin
World-class violinist Cho-Liang Lin was featured next in one of the cornerstones of the classical repertoire, Brahms’ Violin Concerto. Like Kuan, a native of Taiwan, Lin never achieved the superstar status of the older Itzhak Perlman or the younger Joshua Bell, but it would be hard to imagine a better performance of this rapturous yet challenging masterpiece. A moderate tempo proved ideal for the long opening movement, where Lin’s burnished tone reflected both technical mastery and emotional depth. He played the ravishing slow movement with sensitivity and the lively Gypsy-flavored finale with flair, while conductor and orchestra were in full-bodied rapport throughout. 

A commanding rendition of Brahms’ fourth and final symphony brought the program to a somber close. The symphony opens with a quiet melancholy theme, but the first movement builds to a dramatic conclusion. The slow second movement is dark and funereal, while the third movement is a bright dance-like scherzo. The finale is a passacaglia, or variations on a short theme, that reaches a shattering climax.

Kuan’s urgent leadership drew passionate commitment from her musicians and made it clear why the audience at the work’s Vienna premiere in 1897 was so moved when the composer made his final public appearance there less than a month before he passed away.