On Wednesday evening I went to Carnegie Hall to hear the Bayerisches Staatsorchester (in English, the Bavarian State Orchestra), one of Europe's premiere ensembles, led by its Music Director Kirill Petrenko. Although the program contained only two works, it was a long concert that lasted more than two hours.
The concert opened with Brahms's Double Concerto in A minor, Op. 102 (1887). Although written a good ten years before his death in 1897, the concerto was the composer's penultimate orchestral work. As such, one would expect it to be performed much more often than is the case. Part of the problem is no doubt the practical difficulty in scheduling two virtuoso soloists to perform together with orchestra. A much more fundamental problem, however, lies in the work's inception. It was written not as the result of musical inspiration but rather as a very deliberate attempt on Brahms's part to win back the friendship of violinist Joseph Joachim who had broken with the composer after the latter had taken the part of Joachim's wife, singer Amalie Schneeweiss, in her contentious divorce proceedings. As Amalie was a friend of both Brahms and Clara Schumann, the composer may have felt he had had no other option than to defend her honor after she had been accused of adultery by a jealous Joachim. In any event, the loss of Joachim's friendship was a harsh blow to Brahms who owed to it even his introduction to the Schumanns as far back as 1854. In writing the concerto, which Brahms thought might be a more acceptable offering to Joachim than a piece for violin alone, the composer employed every device that came to mind, including the insertion of a theme from a Viotti violin concerto that Joachim particularly enjoyed performing and a variation on the FAE motif that was Joachim's musical signature. As a result, the concerto was too calculated a piece to ever come alive in its own right. The critic Eduard Hanslick recognized this when he condemned the piece, no matter how gently, as "a product of a great constructive mind rather than an irresistible inspiration of creative imagination and invention." Even Clara, normally Brahms's strongest supporter, criticized the work: "I do not believe the concerto has any future. Nowhere has it the warmth and freshness which are so often to be found in his works." In light of such a negative reaction, Brahms abandoned plans for a second concerto with the same instrumentation and, as already observed, never composed any further orchestral works.
After having heard the concerto (and I also own a recording featuring Isaac Stern and Yo Yo Ma) I'd have to agree that this is not one of Brahms's most successful works. Even though both soloists - Julia Fischer, violin, and Daniel Müller-Schott, cello - did a fine job, the music failed to affect me even if I could appreciate the complexity of its design. It seemed heavy handed and too self conscious in its search for effects that would please its listeners.
After the piece had concluded, the soloists performed Halvorsen's Passacaglia as an encore. Based on Handel's Passacaille No.6 from the Suite in G minor, HWV 432, Halvorsen had transcribed the work for violin and viola while here of course it was arranged for violin and cello. It was a lively work, a bit long for an encore, but a definite crowd pleaser.
After intermission, the program concluded with the second and final work, Tchaikovsky's Manfred Symphony in B minor, Op. 58 (1885). Although written only two years before the Brahms concerto, the Tchaikovsky symphony is a far different work even if both composers were, each in his own way, committed Romantics. While Byron's 1817 poem Manfred has largely been forgotten, it was an enormously popular work in the nineteenth century due in large part to its gothic and supernatural elements and had already inspired an 1852 adapatation by Schumann and even in 1872 a piano "meditation" by Nietzsche. It was the poem's supernatural character that had most impressed Balakirev, a charter member of the "Five," and led him to suggest it as a subject to Tchaikovsky who was not initially enthusiastic. As much tone poem as symphony, the work's most obvious musical antecedent is Berlioz's impassioned Symphonie fantastique. Manfred is certainly unique in Tchaikovsky's oeuvre, his only attempt at a programmatic symphony, and has always elicited mixed reactions from audiences and critics alike. Even the composer was of two minds concerning it, first considering it among his best works and later expressing a desire to destroy the score. My own opinion, after having heard Wednesday evening's performance, was initially quite positive even if in form it seemed much closer to Tchaikovsky's ballet scores than to his symphonies. As such, it gave free rein to the composer's fervent Russian Romanticism, a good match for Byron's own unbridled emotionalism.
My greatest interest in attending this concert, aside from the music itself, was to hear Kirill Petrenko's work on the podium. He will be succeeding Simon Rattle next year as artistic director and chief conductor of the Berliner Philharmoniker, and I thought this would be an excellent opportunity to judge how well he worked with another venerable German orchestra. In the event, he did a masterful job in leading a fine ensemble. I thought him particularly effective on the Tchaikovsky symphony that calls for unusually large orchestral forces. I only wish conductor and orchestra had chosen a less idiosyncratic program for their Carnegie Hall debut.
The concert was broadcast live on WQXR and the archived performance is now available for listening on the station's website.