‘The most profound music for orchestra’ rounds out Brahms mini-fest at CMF

Wrapping up two nights of full, burnished orchestral sounds at Chautauqua

By Peter Alexander

Johannes_Brahms_portraitFour symphonies in two days is a lot of Brahms, but Jean-Marie Zeitouni and the Colorado Music Festival Orchestra pulled it off to the full satisfaction of their audience. Last night’s (July 8) nearly-full house for the second of two concerts stood and cheered and whistled and—was that a horse whinny I heard behind me?

It’s safe to say the audience showed its robust approval.

The second program was shared by the Third Symphony in F major and the 4th Symphony in E minor—two works that, Zeitouni said, “speak to someplace where mortals are not even invited.” Happily, he did invite his mortal audience into the elevated—if not quite otherworldly—performance.

The orchestra filled the Chautauqua Auditorium with the rich tones and well balanced chords of the brass section from the very first notes of the Third Symphony. Their bright, burnished sounds characterized both evenings’ performances, and they particularly suited this work.

The first movement, with its complex textures and overlapping lines, is particularly challenging for conductors and players alike. To their credit, the CMF orchestra played with great transparency, making every inner line in the woodwinds, every passing theme audible.

The shifting chords at the recapitulation—a particular hazard of the movement—were all carefully balanced and matched. In many ways, the performance of this movement was exemplary: Zeitouni and the Festival Orchestra at their very best.

Both the second and third movements gave the players a chance to revel in a relaxed fullness of sound. These movements are perhaps too much the same, but both were played with great delicacy of phrasing and beauty of sound. The Horn solo in the third was especially memorable.

The many thematic fragments of the finale were successfully pulled together and wrapped in a full and cushioning orchestral fabric. Zeitouni’s characteristic transparency of texture made it all work. Once again, the horn playing was beautiful, if slightly overbalancing the rest of the orchestra. The end subsided, as it is written, into a vanishing whisper that became another of the challenges of this symphony successfully overcome.

Jean-Marie-Casual

Jean-Marie Zeitouni

The Fourth Symphony is one of my favorite pieces, even if I don’t quite share Zeitouni’s belief that it is “the most beautiful and profound music ever written for orchestra.” Nonetheless, it is unmistakably beautiful and profound and always welcome on an orchestral program.

The first movement provides a great example of tradeoffs in interpretive decisions. Zeitouni sought out different sound qualities in the different layers of the orchestral texture, with the strings ranging from brilliant to a warm, sustained and singing sound, punctuated by raspy, pecking chords from the woodwinds, and the brass always chorale-like in their warmth and resonance. This brings out the separate lines and ideas, but the tradeoff is a loss of unity and blend.

This was a soaring, lyrical reading of the first movement, not tortured or dramatized as it is sometimes heard. All the layers and sections came together for a surging climax that could have—but didn’t quite—upstage the final close of the symphony.

Sometimes you have to just sit back and enjoy the sound of an orchestra. That was largely the case in the second movement, even when the horns seemed again just more than was needed in contrast to the hushed pianissimos.

The third movement was played in a very direct and straightforward style. Sometimes played with a halting quality, as if there were a gravitational pull holding back the momentum, here it was brisk and bracing, an approach that is in alignment with the rest of Zeitouni’s interpretation.

A set of variations on a simple chord progression, the finale is a throwback to the German Baroque music that Brahms studied and loved. It is certainly one of the great orchestral movements, with the Baroque and Classical and Romantic techniques all coming together in a kind of ideal synthesis that seems to transcend time and styles. This movement does occupy another plane.

The trick is to recognize the joints between the many individual variations, but to get through them without a loss of tension and forward movement. The slower, softer middle variations seemed to relax a little too much, particularly as a beautiful brass chorale died into silence. But—another tradeoff?—the impact was stunning when the full wind section proclaimed the return of the original chords, allegro, forte, fortissimo, kicking the whole thing into an extra gear. You will not hear a more effective ending of Brahms’s Fourth.

Zeitouni has said this is the first of many single-composer mini-festivals to come at CMF. That is the kind of programming that raises the festival above the ordinary, providing both musical pleasure and illumination for Boulder’s audiences. I applaud Zeitouni and the CMF for this commitment and look forward to future installments.

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