Friday, February 3, 2012

Guy Braunstein; The Brahms Ensemble Concerto with the Berliner Philharmoniker

It should be renamed. After hearing Guy Braunstein play the Brahms Violin Concerto on the Digital Concert Hall I want to petition to rename the work the Brahms Ensemble Concerto. Perhaps it could be called the "BEC" for short.

With the advent of the Digital Concert Hall it is possible that more people now know of violinist Braunstein in his role as First Konzertmeister of the Berliner Philharmoniker than know of him as a soloist, but he was trained, and developed his early career as a soloist and not primarily as an orchestral specialist. But it was as a soloist that Braunstein performed with the Berliner Philharmoniker on this occasion, and the fascination of his performance of the Brahms Concerto for Violin was that he played the work with a sound that seemed to come from within the orchestra.

He stood further back within the ensemble than most soloists position themselves, and he leaned in toward the ensemble. He was standing, but he was also part of the sectional violins. During the opening of the development, which is the first place after its entry when the soloist does not play, he instinctively moved away from the front of the stage, nearer to the sound, to join his colleagues and share the power of this moment.

Braunstein played with technical ease and fluidity but he did not seek an untroubled ease in the sound itself. He let the struggle between dance and torment that drives so much of the opening movement find expression in metric and bow-arm frictions.

There is an unexpected moment in the development of the first movement, marked tranquillo, where a new rhythmic figure of one 8th followed by two 16ths is developed obsessively. Braunstein allowed them to carry an almost baroque dance energy, and played tautly but without exploding with the trilled sequence into which this passage dissolves. He played the Joachim cadenza. Joachim was also engaged by this passage from the development and featured it in his cadenza. Braunstein made the connection apparent, then shifted the resonance of his sound to allow Joachim's vision of it to spin into a burning con brio.

The second movement benefited even more from being approached as orchestral music rather than music for soloist with accompaniment. The opening passage was played like harmoniemusik, not as a solo for oboe with wind accompaniment--the solo oboe playing by Albrecht Mayer sparkled with an embedded context.

After intermission we heard Ein Heldenleben, which is a work that celebrates extremes. But this Heldenleben needed more focus and control in order to persuade beyond beautifully played moments. Though I enjoyed Andris Nelsons when he conducted the Berliner Philharmoniker in September 2011, his presence during this performance was often distracting. He accelerated the burn of many passages too quickly and lost intermediary colors that are possible.

Still, there were brilliant passages, especially during the music often called "reflections on youth," from"Des Helden Friedenswerke," where themes from early works by Strauss were woven together with tenderness and fun. There was also an interesting (and I think new) angle from the production crew that was a close-up shot from just above one of the harps, just before the bassoon solo. The image made us seem to float just before the music itself floated.

I did not like the pairing of the Brahms Violin Concerto and Heldenleben on this program. During the extensive "hero's companion" section, the solo violin texture (and in spite of the fact that it was well played by concertmaster Daishin Kashimoto) did not have the sonic freshness that it would have had with a different companion work. The juxtaposition of the two works produced no significant insight, and so any comparison simply distracted and made it harder to integrate Heldenleben itself.

When the work is released into the archives of the Digital Concert Hall I look forward to the opportunity to hear it again without first hearing the Brahms Violin Concerto.

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