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Favoring Brahms

The San Jose Symphony's pairing of Beethoven and Brahms boosts the latter

By Philip Collins

BRAHMS DIDN'T need a crystal ball to foresee that his music would ultimately be compared to Beethoven's--which, of course, is not a bad neighborhood in which to spend posterity. "You have no idea what it feels like always having such a giant marching along behind one," the composer told conductor Hermann Levi.

Beethoven's formidable symphonic oeuvre so intimidated Brahms that he didn't get around to composing his own first symphony until rather late in his career, at age 43. But caution--or fear--paid off. The piece bore aspects akin to Beethoven's symphonic approach, but it stood on its own and has since proven durable.

Music Director Leonid Grin was perhaps kind in placing Brahms' Symphony No. 1 next to Beethoven's Concerto for Piano, Violin, Cello and Orchestra at the San Jose Symphony's concert last weekend. The Triple Concerto is one of Beethoven's least magical orchestral scores. Brahms' Symphony No. 1, however, manifests inspired proportions in its structuring, and its melodic gratifications are unsparing. Brahms at peak form juxtaposed with mediocre Beethoven turned out to be an unfair match.

The Triple Concerto is basically chamber music draped in orchestral garb. The interplays of violin, cello and piano are just about all that matters in this piece, and pianist Marina Gusak-Grin, violinist Mark Peskanov and cellist Daniel Gaisford held the front lines masterfully. Like a trio sonata with symphonic commentaries, the concerto highlights Beethoven's genius on solo and small ensemble terms. Passages of lyric enterprise and snug dovetailings spring eternal throughout the concerto, while the larger scope of things remains unconvincing.

The soloists' renderings provided a glowing countenance to the undertaking, and their alert reciprocations more than once called to mind Mozart's influence. Peskanov brought jeweled resonance to bear with his gorgeously honed violin work.

Peskanov's command of, and apparent familiarity with, the concerto pulled the three soloists' interweavings together on repeated instances. The violinist took a leading role in guiding unions with Gaisford, which by and large fell together beautifully.

Gaisford's cello maintained a glowing tone, and his phrase work instilled buoyancy from the ground up. His sound was rich and reflective of expressive content rather than simply full of itself; particularly in the largo, where it really counted. Gaisford's measured projection benefited the blends with Peskanov, though a little more volume might've helped in the finale. Intonation became slippery for Gaisford during the transition into the third movement, and in some upper-range passages afterward. Musical impetus held strong regardless.

Gusak-Grin's primarily supportive role among the solo workings was elegant, if a shade understated at times. In deference to the strings' prominent activities, Gusak-Grin emphasized her instrument's diplomatic function. In the largo, her arpeggiations subtly bridged the violin and cello's intimations.

BRAHMS' mighty First Symphony got the evening into high gear following intermission. The work's churning momentum is instantaneously gripping, and the orchestra's rendering held the throughline taut right to the finish, although ragged moments cropped up in all the movements, including recurrent sourness among the woodwind family and some shrieking violin blasphemies in the first movement.

The symphony glowed by virtue of the ensemble's wherewithal and Grin's driving commitment to the score's spiritual essence. Certain matters that really count came off well. The third movement's stream-side walk was flowing and heavenly. Michael Corner's clarinet sailed sublimely atop the strings' undulating currents, making good on one of classical music's most bucolic episodes.

The mountaineer call by principal horn Wendell Rider broke through like sunrise shortly into the fourth movement. The trombones followed up robustly in their subsequent chorales, and Maria Tamburrino's contributions on flute were ravishing. The strings carried the body of the symphony athletically and offered many shining passages along the way.

Now if only the programming could loosen up enough to include a broader view of repertoire--something besides standard fare of the 19th century and Russia. The next program, on Oct. 18, features Wagner, Beethoven and Shostakovich, so don't hold your breath.

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From the October 10-16, 1996 issue of Metro

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