“One laughs while the other cries”, said Johannes Brahms. He was referring to his two Overtures, Tragic and Academic Festival. Leonard Slatkin and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra had already visited the former as part of the current Brahms Festival, and here now was the colourfully scored confection of student songs, Brahms’s thank-you to Breslau University for conferring an honorary doctorate upon him, and ending with the ‘Gaudeamus igitur’ in full flight.
In contrast to Slatkin’s brisk, bright and bracing approach to it, Brahms’s Second Serenade brought a dusky hue, partly because the composer excludes violins and the scoring is mellower anyway. That said, the broadcast sound was too ambient, the music-making suggested as being ‘big’ and it became wearing in its loudness with little quiet playing evident: I am sure it was different in the Hall itself. The best sound from the Al Glancy Control Room can be superb, such as in the first of these Brahms concerts.
It was a pleasing performance though of this five-movement piece – fast, slow and dancing, with a Scherzo and a Minuet. This attractive account – with the violas sitting to the conductor’s left, the cellos and double basses to the right, classical woodwinds and horns in the centre – was expressive and fully characterised. Following the moderation yet invitation of the first movement, the Scherzo went for a good jog and the slow movement had its autumnal shades revealed. The Minuet teased delightfully and the Finale enjoyed not being rushed, a pointed conclusion, the skirl of a piccolo further rousing things.
After the interval was Brahms’s long-gestated First Symphony, written in the shadow of Beethoven. I liked Slatkin’s description of the opening timpani strokes as being Beethoven’s footsteps stalking the younger composer; that will stay with me. If the broadcast sound remained vivid if over-brilliant, with downward dynamics limited, this darkness-to-light piece was emotionally involving from the off, unflagging and non-sagging, delivered with power, energy and splendour. I am not normally convinced that the first-movement exposition repeat need be taken – although Boult and Blomstedt have persuaded me otherwise, and Slatkin does too.
The first movement’s tempest was growly and incisive, part of an ink-still-wet account whose tensions were solaced in the slow movement – given with radiant sweep and including a blossoming violin solo from Yoonshin Song – and a wistful and ebullient third, a characteristic Brahmsian intermezzo. Anxiety returns in the Finale, but the mists clear, the sun appears (a brass-led chorale) and Slatkin and the DSO went on from there to give a noble and pliant reading leading – the chorale returning wonderfully in tempo – to a triumphant coda.
For all the possible 1,001 performances of this work I have heard over the years (beginning with Rudolf Kempe’s Berlin recording), here I was relishing new details and interpretative possibilities.
This is another busy-with-Brahms weekend in Detroit. This concert had also been played in the morning, and Slatkin and the DSO return for Saturday and Sunday outings for the delicious pairing of Serenade 1 and Symphony 2. Sunday’s is broadcast, 3 o’clock in the Hall plus or minus time-differences for us worldwide viewers.