Zukerman, Biss: Brahms bliss

11.06.09
Jonathan Biss
Salt Lake Tribune

By Catherine Reese Newton

The Utah Symphony is on a Brahms binge this weekend, pairing the composer's fourth and final symphony with his first piano concerto, which began life as a symphony and still might as well be considered one.
Conductor Pinchas Zukerman didn't shy from the grandiosity of either work. Not every risk paid off in these bold performances, but Zukerman undeniably made them interesting.

The soloist, 28-year-old American pianist Jonathan Biss, paced himself well in the marathon concerto. His performance was generally straightforward, occasionally impassioned; he never overreached. The dreamlike cadenza in the second movement was especially well-controlled. At the work's conclusion, Biss appeared exhausted, but appreciative of his orchestral collaborators and the enthusiastic audience.

Zukerman and the orchestra partnered Biss beautifully, especially in the serene slow movement. The conductor created real magic in the concerto's quieter passages. The outer movements, by contrast, fairly burst with bravado.

The conductor likewise played up the Romantic aspects of the Fourth Symphony. The faster movements strode forward with urgent momentum and an occasional hint of wildness, but the dramatic tension Zukerman achieved in the slower passages was even more impressive.

An unconventional stage configuration -- cellists seated in the middle of the stage, woodwinds in back and brass in rows at the right rear -- yielded some unusual effects, as did Zukerman's tendency to emphasize the brass. At times, the unexpected prominence of some of these orchestral details made it hard for a listener to know where to focus attention. (Then again, one can't really blame the conductor for bringing hornist Bruce Gifford's radiant tones to the fore.)

At other times, the effect was undeniably invigorating. Perhaps because he's one of the world's top violists and violinists, Zukerman elicited an especially incisive and well-disciplined sound from the Utah Symphony's strings. Craig Fineshriber's triangle work in the symphony's third movement was an unexpected delight. Erich Graf's beautifully phrased solo in the finale was another of the evening's highlights.