No wonder critics were bewildered by Brahm’s Violin Concerto in 1879. Not only is it a monumental work that requires highly attentive listening, it often feels more like a symphony with violin than a concerto. The work has none of the fireworks typical of the early 19th century concerto, although it is still a technically demanding work. It requires a fine balance of poise and passion, two qualities which violinist Guy Braunstein together with the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Michalis Economou, amply had.
The latest MPO concert, held at the Mediterranean Conference Centre, presented two colossal works by two giants of the German Romantic tradition – Brahms and Mahler. Presenting a Brahms concerto followed by a Mahler symphony was an interesting combination, even if it made for a rather heavy programme. Wagner’s Rienzi overture, which was meant to open the concert, was wisely dropped from the programme.
Brahms is one of those composers that can easily become tedious at the hands of lesser musicians. It is easy to interpret his music as being serious and Germanic, but that would be missing the point entirely. Braunstein, apart from being an undisputed master of his instrument, also brought out tenderness, lyricism, intimacy, and yes, even humour in the final movement.
The MPO was in good form, with a solid sound from the string section in particular. Economou took a cautious approach, especially in the first movement. The final movement had plenty of energy, leading to a rumbustious finale that had the audience on its feet. Braunstein then regaled those present with some more Brahms by playing his Hungarian Dance No. 6 as an encore, a work he performed with great gusto.
The second half of the programme was taken up by Mahler’s Symphony No. 5. A Mahler symphony is an experience in itself, and it could have easily stood by itself as a concert programme. Each of his symphonies is a self-contained musical universe containing a bewildering array of ideas and emotions. This symphony also marks a turning point in Mahler’s symphonic oeuvre – no more complex programmes for the audience to try and figure out, but a vast musical canvas wherein one can roam freely.
The Fifth Symphony suffers slightly from its famous (and exquisite) Adagietto and memorable opening, but there is much else besides. It is exhausting work for orchestra and conductor alike because of the overwhelming amount of ideas. You could be in the middle of a solemn funeral march one minute, and then find yourself in a Viennese waltz the next.
As with the Brahms concerto, the opening was cautious. The famous trumpet motif, ably played by principal trumpet Kevin Abela, lacked punch, as did the subsequent two movements in general. Economou played safe, and that took a bit off the edge. Still, there were great moments, and the subsequent returns of the trumpet motifs commanded greater vigour from Abela. In general the brass section was in top form, and clearly revelled in the many wonderful brass moments of the first two movements.
It was from the Scherzo onwards that the symphony really took off. It seemed that here Economou threw caution to the wind and launched the orchestra into a rollercoaster of emotions. Principal horn player Etienne Cutajar was in top form, and in full command of the demanding horn solos in the Scherzo. The rest of the orchestra was an equal match, resulting in a musically tight and exciting rendition.
I have to admit I am not too fond of the Adagietto, not because it is not beautiful, but because it is overplayed and often misinterpreted. So it is to the MPO’s and Economou’s credit that they managed to keep me engaged all the way through. Economou’s pacing was perfect, and the string sound was uniform and lyrical. It created the perfect respite before the final onslaught as different ideas converged and led to a spectacular finale.
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