Brahms and Mahler, Symphonic Firsts review: Titanic challenges well met by Yefim Bronfman and Donald Runnicles

11.30.14
Donald Runnicles
Sydney Morning Herald

By Peter McCallum

This program presented two portraits of artists as young men, both in their 20s, taking on the world and failing.

That, at least is the way it must have seemed to Brahms in 1859 after the hostile reaction to his Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, Opus 15, in Leipzig, and to Mahler after the cool reaction to his First Symphony 30 years later in Budapest. Fortunately, posterity thought better.

Beyond initially uncomprehending audiences, both works share a sense of titanic struggle (Mahler adopted "Titan" as a subtitle at one point before discarding it).

Yefim Bronfman sits high at the piano, and, in the Brahms concerto, produced a brittle sound of tensile hardness that cut through the instrumental textures when the piano has to match the rattling trills of orchestra's defiant opening theme. The second movement was more intimate, ranging from reflective mellowness to a peak of expressive intensity. The finale shares a comparable zest, vitality and contrapuntal animation with that of Beethoven's Third Concerto, and Bronfman articulated it with spiky incisiveness.

Strangely, it seems to have been the final two movements of Mahler's First Symphony which elicited the most hostility at the premiere. Today, the haunting yet subtly ironic tone of the funeral march which opens the third movement, apparently built from nothing more than a minor key version of Frere Jacques, and the irresistible exhilaration of the close of the finale, when the eight French horns stand and deliver a victorious version of the theme heard right at the start of the symphony, are among the moments that communicate most directly.

Donald Runnicles moulded the mercurial tempo changes of the first movement, from the opening awakening to the exuberant close, to create a single arch and brought happy, untamed vigour to the second movement.

Since Sander Wilkens' edition of Mahler's symphonies last century, there has been debate about whether the Frere Jacques theme of the third movement should be played by a solo bass or the whole group and, thankfully (and, in my view, correctly), Runnicles entrusted the crucial task to the sensitivities of bass player Kees Boersma alone. Runnicles led the finale with engaging spirit, though, for me, the close seemed a hint fast, tipping the tone from the magisterial toward the impetuous.

That was a very interesting opener. I don't care about the greatness of Mozart's Piano Concertos: they are sufficiently brilliant to take care of themselves. I do care about the Sinfonia Concertante, because it is one of the greatest, most perfect of all musical works, and I include Mozart's concertos and the last symphonies.

Yet it gets sidelined. There are issues. You need two soloists, a violin and a viola. But they are part of the orchestra: it's not a virtuoso display case; it's more symphonic than that. So do you employ two star soloists, or find another way? Runnicles' solution was perfect: he used Laura Samuel, leader of the SSO, and Scott Dickinson, principal viola, both extremely experienced chamber musicians, highlighted by the intimacy of their duologues, and both consummate orchestral musicians and leaders, through whom Runnicles could emphasise the symphonic integrity of the work. Fabulous playing from both, and from all. So simple; so perfect.

Not far behind it, on the endless road towards veracity, was Runnicles' and the SSO's Beethoven Ninth, where intellectual argument and drama, rather than atmospherics, dominated the first movement. Where long-range propulsion drove the Scherzo. Where sustained, expressive fluidity characterised the great slow movement, and where, when it took form and broke through, the visionary melodiousness of the finale was transcendent, with impressively rounded singing from the soloists and, not a shout in sight, the Edinburgh Festival Chorus.

That was a very interesting opener. I don't care about the greatness of Mozart's Piano Concertos: they are sufficiently brilliant to take care of themselves. I do care about the Sinfonia Concertante, because it is one of the greatest, most perfect of all musical works, and I include Mozart's concertos and the last symphonies.

Yet it gets sidelined. There are issues. You need two soloists, a violin and a viola. But they are part of the orchestra: it's not a virtuoso display case; it's more symphonic than that. So do you employ two star soloists, or find another way? Runnicles' solution was perfect: he used Laura Samuel, leader of the SSO, and Scott Dickinson, principal viola, both extremely experienced chamber musicians, highlighted by the intimacy of their duologues, and both consummate orchestral musicians and leaders, through whom Runnicles could emphasise the symphonic integrity of the work. Fabulous playing from both, and from all. So simple; so perfect.

Not far behind it, on the endless road towards veracity, was Runnicles' and the SSO's Beethoven Ninth, where intellectual argument and drama, rather than atmospherics, dominated the first movement. Where long-range propulsion drove the Scherzo. Where sustained, expressive fluidity characterised the great slow movement, and where, when it took form and broke through, the visionary melodiousness of the finale was transcendent, with impressively rounded singing from the soloists and, not a shout in sight, the Edinburgh Festival Chorus.

That was a very interesting opener. I don't care about the greatness of Mozart's Piano Concertos: they are sufficiently brilliant to take care of themselves. I do care about the Sinfonia Concertante, because it is one of the greatest, most perfect of all musical works, and I include Mozart's concertos and the last symphonies.

Yet it gets sidelined. There are issues. You need two soloists, a violin and a viola. But they are part of the orchestra: it's not a virtuoso display case; it's more symphonic than that. So do you employ two star soloists, or find another way? Runnicles' solution was perfect: he used Laura Samuel, leader of the SSO, and Scott Dickinson, principal viola, both extremely experienced chamber musicians, highlighted by the intimacy of their duologues, and both consummate orchestral musicians and leaders, through whom Runnicles could emphasise the symphonic integrity of the work. Fabulous playing from both, and from all. So simple; so perfect.

Not far behind it, on the endless road towards veracity, was Runnicles' and the SSO's Beethoven Ninth, where intellectual argument and drama, rather than atmospherics, dominated the first movement. Where long-range propulsion drove the Scherzo. Where sustained, expressive fluidity characterised the great slow movement, and where, when it took form and broke through, the visionary melodiousness of the finale was transcendent, with impressively rounded singing from the soloists and, not a shout in sight, the Edinburgh Festival Chorus.

That was a very interesting opener. I don't care about the greatness of Mozart's Piano Concertos: they are sufficiently brilliant to take care of themselves. I do care about the Sinfonia Concertante, because it is one of the greatest, most perfect of all musical works, and I include Mozart's concertos and the last symphonies.

Yet it gets sidelined. There are issues. You need two soloists, a violin and a viola. But they are part of the orchestra: it's not a virtuoso display case; it's more symphonic than that. So do you employ two star soloists, or find another way? Runnicles' solution was perfect: he used Laura Samuel, leader of the SSO, and Scott Dickinson, principal viola, both extremely experienced chamber musicians, highlighted by the intimacy of their duologues, and both consummate orchestral musicians and leaders, through whom Runnicles could emphasise the symphonic integrity of the work. Fabulous playing from both, and from all. So simple; so perfect.

Not far behind it, on the endless road towards veracity, was Runnicles' and the SSO's Beethoven Ninth, where intellectual argument and drama, rather than atmospherics, dominated the first movement. Where long-range propulsion drove the Scherzo. Where sustained, expressive fluidity characterised the great slow movement, and where, when it took form and broke through, the visionary melodiousness of the finale was transcendent, with impressively rounded singing from the soloists and, not a shout in sight, the Edinburgh Festival Chorus.