Brahms' Second(s) 

ISO Classical Series program No. 5
Hilbert Circle Theater
Nov. 2-4

When confronted with an Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra program containing only two large-scale Brahms works, a bevy of Brahms haters often comes out of the woodwork. But when they hear Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto with the celebrated André Watts at the keyboard — followed by Brahms’ Second Symphony, most ably conducted by ISO music director Mario Venzago — even the most warhorse-jaded do a double take.

Watts delivered “kilowatts” of pianistic power with the longest, most symphonic piano concerto in the standard repertoire. As imposing as a wall of indestructible granite, Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat, Op. 83 (1881) plays out in four movements, not the usual three, lasts nearly an hour — not the usual 35 to 40 minutes. It also contains the most beautiful Andante he ever wrote.

Now 61 and looking a little grayer, a little heftier, Watts — a faculty member with an endowed chair at the IU School of Music — was seen to shake whichever hand was free following a difficult passage, no doubt to avoid or relieve possible cramping. This concession to age did not detract one iota from his playing, however. All the Watts characteristics of superb dynamic control, coupled with beautiful voicing of those chords, big and little, the faultless filigree, the tasteful use of retards, the subtle employment of inflections ... they all worked to bring out every musical element this ambitious concerto contains.

Hovering over the keyboard, his entire body-essence pouring into those 10 fingers, Watts’ technical prowess remains undiminished, underscoring his absolute command of the work, one which, if anything, continues to reach greater musical depths. A giant of a pianist playing a giant work, no one present escaped the synergy, and no one wished Watts to stop with those final chords. Thunderously applauding, everyone wanted an encore, but Watts had shared everything within him for that evening.

Venzago and his orchestra held up their end of the bargain as well, starting with that opening horn theme. But even more so, ISO principal Arkady Orlovsky’s cello theme opening the Andante movement ravished with his beautiful statement of it — so much so that Watts kept deflecting his deafening applause at the end toward Orlovsky, who took several discreet bows of his own. Modestly scored for such a large work, the concerto’s massed strings carried most of the load. And with Stephanie Sant’Ambrosio of the San Antonio Symphony in the guest concertmaster chair, those strings delivered a special sheen, suggesting this lady may be a good choice for permanent ISO concertmaster.

Following the exaltation of Watts’ coupling with Brahms’ Second, we were saved from a total anticlimax by Venzago’s superb account of the “other” Second, Brahms Symphony No. 2 in D, Op. 73 (1877). The strings again predominated in this sunny dispositioned work — shorter, less ambitious than the concerto. Using the best control of his inflections, Venzago gave us his best-interpreted, best-played Brahms symphony to date.

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