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S.F. Symphony review: Joyous outlook on Brahms

Gil Shaham
San Francisco Chronicle

By Joshua Kosman

With every performance I become more fascinated and persuaded by Michael Tilson Thomas' approach to Brahms. In his hands, the composer's music sounds incisive, but also sensual and unpredictable - qualities that are too often overlooked by conductors who are committed to Brahms as a deep thinker.

Leading the San Francisco Symphony in Davies Symphony Hall on Wednesday night, Thomas followed up on last week's splendid account of the "German Requiem" with more Brahms, rendered once again with a combination of depth and joyful flair. And this time around he had a partner, violinist Gil Shaham, who shared his outlook on the music.

The result was a vision of the Violin Concerto as pure entertainment, full of vivacious charm, rhythmic exuberance and soulful beauty. It's not the only way to treat this evocative score - other performers are apt to find more lushness in Brahms' writing - but it certainly makes for a lively and engaging rendition.

It also tallies nicely with Shaham's gifts as a violinist, which involve hair-trigger responsiveness and restless intelligence more than sheer tonal appeal. (Those are the same qualities that have made his performances of Berg's Violin Concerto so consistently rewarding.) In his hands, the Brahms took on an almost improvisatory feel, as though he and Thomas were working things out on the fly.

In the first movement, that meant a rhythmic stance that was constantly leaning forward into the beat, and a scrappy tonal quality that could easily have sounded abrasive but instead seemed brisk and alert. The expressive qualities of Brahms' expansive melodic writing came through effectively, but without tugging too overtly on the listener's sleeve.

Even in the beautiful slow movement, which began with a plangent solo from principal oboist William Bennett, Thomas and Shaham ensured that the lyricism never turned slushy or lax. The finale was a bravura display of virtuoso pyrotechnics on everyone's part, culminating in an impeccably controlled application of the brakes heading into the concerto's last measures.

After intermission there was more Brahms, in the form of Schoenberg's brilliant 1937 orchestration of the G Minor Piano Quartet. It's a lovely and perhaps uncharacteristically modest effort on Schoenberg's part, as he keeps his own sensibilities mostly out of the picture (except for the extravagant deployment of the percussion in the last movement).

The orchestra responded with a performance of rich colors and rhythmic fleetness, from the deep-hued but limber textures of the first movement to the lean and rugged athleticism of the finale. Thomas brought out the buoyancy of the subsidiary themes in the second movement, and the Andante - at once reflective and impulsive - sounded magical.

The evening opened far less enticingly, with a loud, graceless account of the Act 3 Prelude from Wagner's "Lohengrin." In the age-old conflict between Wagner and Brahms, it was Brahms in this case who emerged victorious.