Philharmonia/Lorin Maazel

Complete Three-Concert Brahms Cycle

Royal Festival Hall, 30 June 2008 4 stars

MaazelFor me the most gratifying element of Lorin Maazel's presentation of Brahms symphonic works is the transparency of the large structure as well as the lucidity of even the tiniest details. Maazel clearly knows every single note and conducted the whole cycle, including the massive Requiem, from memory. And there are also human elements which inspire admiration: looking and moving at least twenty years younger than his age, the 78 year-old conductor seems perfectly at ease while standing and conducting for over an hour at a stretch.

Maazel's Brahms interpretation can be summed up best by himself. In the programme notes he writes that 'I believe an interpreter of Brahms's symphonic oeuvre cannot truly enter into his idiom without an intimate knowledge of his chamber music. In that realm, Brahms succeeded in expressing the delicacy of his passions with a subtlety and restraint few, if any, have ever achieved. No bombast there, no vacuous declamations. A conductor, conversant with the sonatas, trios, quartets at al., can learn to eschew rhetorical flourishes, saccharine pulping of phrases and maudlin dawdling. In place of sentimentality, sentiment. In place of the abstract imposition of interpretive 'concepts' (with all its attendant posturing), disciplined, visceral drive.'

Maazel does indeed know Brahms' chamber music - eight years ago I attended his violin recital at the Barbican Hall where he performed all three Brahms violin sonatas from memory – and approaches Brahms' large works from the angle of chamber music. It is rare, if at all, to hear the timpani so integrated in ensemble as during this Brahms cycle: for example I should mention a short dialogue between the first violins and timpani in the last movement of Symphony No. 2 and another of these dialogues  between strings and timpani in the first movement of Symphony No. 4.

The Philharmonia Orchestra  presented  the cycle with the title 'Brahms: The Romantic'. Hardly a revelation, but a possible cause for misunderstanding. Those who came to the concerts with expectation for what Maazel described in the programme notes as 'rhetorical flourishes, saccharine pulping of phrases and maudlin dawdling' might have been disappointed. Sometimes even I - an admirer of Maazel – found the sentiment understated: the grand opening cello theme in the slow movement of Symphony No. 2 and again the opening cello theme in the slow movement of Symphony No. 3 sounded less than espressivo, although this might had to do with the interpretation of the guest principal cellist. (Why do orchestras use guest principals? Surely they could deliver quality from within their own ranks?) However, or exactly because of the disciplined restrain during the journey from the beginning of the compositions towards their end, Maazel's finales were bursting with passion and grandeur. On the journey we encountered delicate or robust dances, beautiful songs and sentiments of all kinds in a great variety of tone colours.

The orchestra played magnificently throughout the whole cycle. The clarinet solos delighted the senses as well as the intellect, brass and horns were majestic, the violas sang on their instruments as rarely before. Concert master Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay delivered the violin solo at the end of the second symphony's slow movement with pure and unforced tone, sensitive phrase endings and excellent bow control over the long sustained last note (which lasts for three full bars in slow andante sostenuto).   

In spite of his economic conducting style, the large combined forces of the Philharmonia Chorus and Philharmonia Voices responded splendidly to Maazel's directions. This surely has to do with excellent preparation yet chorus masters (and German language coaches) were not specified in the programme notes. Careful scrutinising of the chorus page shows couple of chorus master names half-way through the text, but there is no way of knowing who was the gentleman who took a bow with the combined chorus after the well–deserved audience ovation. Soprano soloist Heidi Grant Murphy's rhythm was not always accurate and her vibrato too was slightly unsteady. Baritone Simon Keenlyside was on top form, delivering his solos with excellent musical as well as German diction.

Maazel wrote about Brahms that 'Only genius can reconcile passionate expression and compositional imperatives'. Regarding interpretation and performance, Maazel is not far off from this maxim.

By Agnes Kory

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