If Beethoven is the composer with the stormy soul, and Mahler is the master of haunting expressionism, Johannes Brahms – the mid 19th century Romantic master who came between them chronologically – is the composer with the wildly singing heart. And you could feel the vibrant, life-affirming beat of that heart throughout the past two weeks as Maestro Riccardo Muti led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in two programs devoted to Brahms’ four symphonies.
Much like a museum retrospective of a visual artist, these concerts, propelled by the CSO’s ravishing ensemble sweep, enabled the near sell-out Symphony Center audiences a chance to hear the development of Brahms’ symphonic style, and to luxuriate in the composer’s ability to weave the most ravishing, enveloping melodies and animated rhythms into beautifully structured works that unfold with a mix of the most natural fluidity and satisfying excitement.
CHICAGO SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
When: May 13 at 8 p.m.
Where: Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan
Tickets: $55 – $270
Run time: 2 hours with one intermission
Even at the most tumultuous moments in these works (and the mood-shifting storminess of Beethoven is clearly present in the “Symphony No. 1 in C Minor,” which was almost 20 years in the making), there is a sense of the lilting lyricism and buoyant spirit that infuses everything Brahms wrote. There is a delicacy, and a rich but intense sweetness even in the most declamatory passages of all these symphonies. They dance, each in their particular way, and often with a sort of deconstructed waltz rhythm. The balance of strings, brass and woodwinds is exquisite, with grandeur and gentleness emerging organically from one passage to the next.
Thursday night’s program featuring the two later works found Muti in exuberant, expressive form, with violinist Robert Chen (ever the modest but invaluable Concertmaster), leading the orchestra’s remarkable string section, Stefan Ragnar Hoskuldsson as principal flute, and Daniel Gingrich as acting principal on horn. And it became clear that in these symphonies Brahms was reveling in a new-found freedom and inventiveness, with ravishing themes appearing, disappearing and then returning, seamlessly, and in the subtlest variations.
The hushed, intimate interplay of the strings, winds and horns in the second movement of “Symphony No. 3” was exquisite, as was the vibrato generated by the strings in the third movement. And even the great triumphal blast of the fourth movement had a playful edge to it – frenzied and celebratory rather than bombastic. A gorgeous work.
The familiar, rapturous opening theme of “Symphony No. 4” instantly creates a swirl of emotion that draws you in like a strong oceanic undertow. The first movement is assertive one moment, then cedes to a slower, quieter motion before shifting again into an almost tango-like rhythm. The roll of timpani drums brings it to a close. The second movement opens with the sound of French horns and gradually transitions from a quietly thoughtful passage into the fullness of singing strings, so that moments of daydreaming morph into high drive – determined but never angry – and then resolve into an almost floating sound.
Next comes a celebratory section – gently formal but also playful and full of joy, with the sounding of the triangle at essential moments. And finally there is the more serious fourth movement, with the strings and winds churning up a sense of intense passion, with an elegiac burst from the horns followed by a powerful finale.
There are composers whose symphonies can lead you through wars, depression, death or religious enlightenment. Brahms makes you want to open your arms and embrace life. Quite the musical magic trick.