It is , after all, the Mostly – but not Only – Mozart Festival. And who am I to complain? This evening was all Brahms, and along with the 2nd Symphony, it was the Double Concerto with a Dream Team we were being offered. Vadim Repin and Truls Mork are masters of their respective instruments, that is a given. But, believe it or not, I can remember when they were promising young artists – that is how old I am!
As you know by now, I am not one to shy away from a digression. So let me reminisce about the fact that I actually met Repin’s teacher, Zakhar Bron, in Madrid. He was then, as I think he still is now, professor of violin at the Escuela Superior de Música Reina Sofía. A stocky, rather brutish looking man, I remember being amazed by the thickness of his fingers and wondering how he could handle a delicate violin. I gave him a lift from a concert to a dinner we had both been invited to. As he had played the “little” Mendelssohn concerto (the D minor, not the E minor), he was carrying his tails in one hand and his violin case in the other, so I opened the door of my car for him. Not a word. The trip from the concert venue to our dinner was not a short one. Again, not a word. I guess we had no common language – or he just had no interest in making small talk. All in all, a rather grumpy man. And yet, he has taught some of the most extraordinary violinists of our day – two of them, at least, in Novosibirsk, Siberia, where they were both born: Vadim Repin and Maxim Vengerov. So he is more than forgiven.
Siberia produced Repin and Vengerov, and Norway produced Truls Mork. It seems that string excellence thrives in cold climates. Curiously Mork (I’m sorry I can’t find that slashed O on my computer) also studied with two Reina Sofía professors, Frans Helmerson and Natalya Shakhovskaya. Yet it was in Berlin that I first heard him in person, when he played the Schubert C major quintet with the Artemis Quartet at a private concert, true and thrilling chamber music.
Both Repin and Mork play on superlative instruments. Repin’s is the Bonjour Guarneri del Gesù and Mork’s the Esquire Montagnana. Both of these makers were, I’m proud to say, friends of my father.
But there were three in this dream team. And again , a conductor I had never heard of but which I will not soon forget. I read in the program that David Afkham is German, born in Freiburg. So I was quite taken aback as I saw a young and handsome maharaja follow Repin and Mork onto the stage. It was only when I got home and googled him that I found the explanation – Afkham’s father is Iranian, whence, I imagine, his dark good looks and aristocratic demeanor.
Back to Brahms, from whom I have strayed. As I watched the three artists walk in I wondered what lay ahead. The double concerto with two such formidable artistic personalities could very well be the Clash of the Titans. It turned out to be a splendid example of dialogue and cohesion, not only between the two soloists, but between them and the orchestra firmly led by Afkham. What is it with this new generation of conductors? They are all so poised and self-assured, so technically accomplished but also so musically mature, so sensitive, so nurturing towards their musicians, not to speak of so majestically composed on the podium. Afkham is younger than the two soloists he “accompanied” that evening, but only in years. Musically, it is all one glorious generation. No need to feel nostalgic, we have it right here in front of us, music is alive and well and in the Summer, at that!
I am dwelling on Afkham because this was the first time I heard him. But there was just as much to rave about in the Repin-Mork duo. Or should I have said Mork-Repin to respect chronology, both in their ages (Mork was born in 1961, ten years earlier than Repin) and in their order of appearance in the concerto, the soloist part of which the cello opens grandly and deeply on the third lowest note on the instrument. Throughout the performance, the three musicians (considering the orchestra as one) passed each other the themes and commentaries in dazzling fashion, each one carrying his responsibility in this dialogue, speaking the notes as words in a well-written script. I’m not one to believe that music is necessarily programmatic, far from it, and I tend not to really like tone poems and the such, but there is no escaping from the fact that music (pardon my triteness) is in fact as much of a language as any spoken one, even more so, I guess. The acoustic abstractness strikes one’s senses as deeply and strongly as the burst of colors in Rothko or Pollock. There were moments when one had the sensation that cello and violin were just one instrument, covering an unbelievably wide range, so perfect was the cohesion in the phrasing and the dynamics. And Afkham never let them down, the orchestral comments being just as pertinent as those of the soloists.
They brought the house down, of course, in that exciting aftermath of a concert which always gives me goose-bumps and so much yearning – for more applause and for more music.
That we got with the Second Symphony, perhaps the least performed and known of Brahms’s four, although all four are staples of the orchestral repertoire. But somehow the First, the Third and the Fourth are of a nature to overshadow the more delicate and pastoral Second. And is it a little annoying that the use of celebrated pieces by the movie industry should make it unavoidable for one to conjure up visions of Françoise Sagan, Tony Perkins and Ingrid Bergman?
Afkham’s choice, if it was his, was perfect to follow the intense Double Concerto, and his direction, no longer tied to that of the two masterful and thus a tad bossy soloists, soared to great heights. Brahms was very fond of horns and cellos and those musicians especially rose to the occasion. But the same must be said of the full orchestra, which did not lag far behind.
So I will say: “Oui, j’aime beaucoup Brahms!, especially when I hear it pushed to such perfection. Merci, Maestros!