Classical Music Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) was a German Romantic composer who, all his life, aspired to be a Classicist in the Beethoven mold — to the extent that he refused to allow titles tacked onto any of his instrumental-genre works: symphonies, concertos, string quartets and quintets, piano trios and quartets, piano sonatas, etc. (though Beethoven himself apparently had fewer objections). Any one of them is simply known as “genre” number N in “some” key, opus “some number”: no subtitles and thus no allusions to a mood, no literary ties and certainly no program to “follow.” You listen for sound only and savor whatever mood it evokes for you. And that is exactly what last weekend’s Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra audience did in the ISO’s next-to-last classical program of the season.
Brazilian conductor Roberto Minczuk — currently co-artistic director of the São Paulo State Symphony and associate conductor of the New York Philharmonic — guest conducted a program consisting only of two Brahms large-scale works: the all-too-familiar Violin Concerto in D, Op. 77, with 29-year-old guest soloist Nikolaj Znaider, followed by the unfamiliar Serenade No. 1 in D, Op. 11.
Just two months ago, this series presented Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, also in D, also his only one. Hearing the Brahms after hearing the Beethoven makes it clear that the former modeled his first movement after the latter’s. And in this one exceptional case, Brahms improved on his mentor considerably. Instead of the angular, harmonically vapid, somewhat repetitive material in the Beethoven — complete with surfacy violin figurations — we are at once bathed, in the Brahms, with harmonically rich themes infused with a beautiful, lyric curve and emboldened with dramatic gestures. Additionally, the solo writing is well-integrated into the orchestral fabric.
Znaider and Minczuk took a relaxed tempo in all three movements, with the Polish/Israeli/Danish fiddler’s part not always shining over competing instruments. Still, despite a narrow vibrato, Znaider projected rich, on-pitch timbres. Oboist Roger Roe furnished a lovely solo, opening the slow movement. All three movements, however, would have benefited from more verve.
Brahms’ first serenade was written in 1858 when he was 25, and, with six movements, is easily of symphonic breadth — if not depth. It opens with one of the composer’s most engaging, rustic horn solos, nicely played by ISO principal Robert Danforth. After a mostly ingratiating 45 minutes, however, the work began to wear out its welcome — due, in part, to Minczuk and his players giving it a routine performance.