Brahms Immense: Viktoria Mullova in L.A.
Dorothy Chandler Pavilion
György Kurtág: Stele, Op. 33 (1995, West Coast premiere)
Johannes Brahms: Violin Concerto, Op. 77
Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 4, Op. 60
Viktoria Mullova (violin)
Los Angeles Philharmonic
Markus Stenz (conductor)
Viktoria Mullova gave such a tremendous performance of the first movement of Brahms' Violin Concerto last night that the audience clapped and clapped after it was done, seemingly oblivious to the fact that two movements were still to come.
With Markus Stenz and the Philharmonic laying out an unusually broad orchestral fabric, Mullova made her first entrance tentative and distant. As the movement's vast length wore on, she relaxed into the music's flow, and responded to the incredible virtuosity it absolutely requires, and gave an unforgettable, Golden Age performance that was not only immensely thrilling but also deeply human, the result of a sense of a contest between the impossible physical demands of the music and Mullova’s implacable personality and tremendous technique. As if in rapture, the audience listened in silent wonder. Mullova ended the movement by playing Joachim’s cadenza with such a rare combination of improvised exploration and tour de force inspiration that the final chords thundered through the hall with overwhelming emotional and musical force.
The well-deserved applause that thundered from the audience, however, was so prolonged that neither the slow movement — despite magnificent playing by oboist David Weiss — nor the last recaptured the intensity that Mullova had established in the first movement. Mullova threw off the last movement pyrotechnics with dazzling brilliance, but somehow the impact was just very, very good instead of superhuman.
Recent attempts to make newcomers comfortable with the classical music experience has led to encouraging audiences to express their approval at the expense of ritual (i.e., waiting until an entire piece is over before applauding). The intent is undoubtedly virtuous, but it creates a serious hazard when it interrupts the long arching focus of a piece like the Concerto.
The concert began with György Kurtág’s Stele, a 15-minute block of motivically-based music based on a compelling philosophical concept and an opening Beethovenian chord, published in 1995 and dedicated to Claudio Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic. Kurtág seems to be a coming composer in the 20th century pantheon — his spare but powerful language, large orchestral palette and economical forms resist easy categorization — and Stenz tried to prepare the audience by introducing Stele with a brief and charming chat in his sexy continental voice, even humming some of the main motives. But his performance did not subsequently achieve its full hypnotic power, perhaps because Stenz had led the audience to expect a more linear experience than the music actually delivers, perhaps because he did not take enough care with the dynamics to insure trapping the audience in the music’s cosmos.
After intermission, Stenz took a run at Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony and found the occasional intersection with the Philharmonic sense of sound and style - the riveting Trio of the Scherzo was the most notable example - but this performance never found its heart, and Stenz was unable to stake some personal ground in what has been one of music director Esa-Pekka Salonen’s most successful Philharmonic interpretations in the mainstream Classical repertoire.