On Thursday evening I went to Carnegie Hall for the first time this year to hear the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, led by Daniele Gatti, perform a Mahler symphony alongside one of the repertoire's best known violin concertos.
The program opened with Bruch's Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor, Op. 26 (1866) with guest artist Janine Jansen as soloist. Those viewing the full title of the work may be forgiven for their surprise upon discovering that Bruch had actually composed more than one violin concerto as most would be hard pressed to name another work by the composer. In fact, Bruch wrote two other violin concertos as well as the Scottish Fantasy for violin and orchestra. He was actually a quite prolific composer and the list of his complete works on Wikipedia is lengthy. What then was it about the Op. 26, one wonders, that caused it to stand out and achieve such enormous popularity? Along with the Beethoven Op. 61, the Mendelssohn Op. 64 and the Brahms Op. 77, it was included by virtuoso violinist Joseph Joachim in his list of the "four German violin concertos." My personal belief is that the work's success had much to do with Joachim himself. In 2014 I attended a concert given by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra at which Christian Tetzlaff performed as soloist on Joachim's Violin Concerto No. 2 in D minor, Op. 11, subtitled "In the Hungarian Style." So closely did it remind me of the Brahms and Bruch concertos that I found myself wondering if those composers had influenced Joachim or if it had been the other way around. Since Joachim's concerto was composed in 1853 and therefore preceded Bruch's by thirteen years and Brahms's by twenty-five, I would thnk based on chronology alone that Joachim should be given pride of place. Moreover, it's well known that Joachim made suggestions to Brahms before the premiere of the Op. 77 that he thought would improve it and also wrote the work's best know cadenza. In a similar manner, Joachim helped Bruch revise the Op. 26 after its first performance in 1866 and then went on to premiere the revised version in 1868. From the concerto's success it might be inferred that Joachim's assistance was far more substantial than has been recognized and that he played a key role in making the Op. 26 the best known composition by Bruch.
After intermission, the program concluded with a performance of Mahler's Symphony No. 1 in D major (1884-1888), originally entitled "The Titan." As is the case with any composer writing his first symphony, Mahler struggled mightily with the No. 1. Fifteen years elapsed between the first tentative sketches completed in 1884 and the work's publication in 1899. Mahler was constantly reworking it, creating and then deleting programmatic explanations, first giving titles to each of the movements and then just as quickly removing them. Listening to the music, it seems that Mahler was trying to put into it everything he had experienced in his life up to that point - snatches of Songs of a Wayfarer, a funeral march, bird songs, and even a children's nursery rhyme. No wonder early listeners, including the composer's future wife Alma, were confused and even repelled by what they heard. But underlying the ceaseless experimentation and accumulation of sources is the sense that this is a work of genius, difficult to comprehend perhaps, but undeniably a masterpiece. There is a grandeur in this symphony that makes its original title highly appropriate. It is indeed titanic and a turning point in the history of modern music. In it lie the seeds of the great symphonies that were to come.
The Royal Concertgebouw is one of Europe's leading orchestras and they did an excellent job on Thursday evening, particularly in their playing of the Mahler symphony. The large number of instruments for which the work is scored make it problematical for any conductor, but Daniele Gatti delivered a tight performance that was received enthusiastically by the audience.