A Tale of Two Tipplers

Lindsay Perigo's picture
Submitted by Lindsay Perigo on Mon, 2018-06-25 00:14

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Miguel Harth-Bedoya with Stefan Jackiw (violin), Music by Farr, Brahms and Tchaikovsky. Michael Fowler Centre 23 June.

If the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra ever played better than this—and they've been playing superbly for years—then this reviewer was not present for it. Seemingly indefatigable after the travails of their Bruckner tour, they brought to these two works by real titans of nineteenth century music a disciplined ferocity and sumptuousness that had the audience (much larger than for the Bruckner) entranced.

Stefan Jackiw, 33 going on 23, looked and sounded magnificent in the Brahms Violin Concerto. His statuesque posture and relative lack of overt theatricality belied the passion he hurled into his performance, unleashing to the point where one feared for his bow, and retreating to the softest pianissimo as required. Conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya kept the orchestra right there with him for every note, scorelessly keeping every moment in sync.

I kept wondering what Brahms would have thought, hearing such a masterful rendering of a concerto that in its time had been declared unplayable. As had Tchaikovsky's! I kept fantasising that the two composers were present. Before meeting him, Tchaikovsky had dismissed Brahms as a "scoundrel" and a "giftless bastard"! Of the Violin Concerto in particular Peter Ilyich had opined: “Brahms’ concerto appealed to me as little as everything else he has written. Lots of preparations as it were for something, lots of hints that something is going to appear very soon and enchant you, but nothing does come out of it all, except for boredom. ... It is like a splendid pedestal for a column, but the actual column is missing, and instead, what comes immediately after one pedestal is simply another pedestal.”

When they met in Leipzig at the home of the violinist who had premiered Tchaikovsky's own Violin Concerto, things were a little awkward at first, but were quickly leavened by the arrival of the affable Edvard Grieg (talk about a Holy Trinity!). The illustrious trio dined with their host and family and became quite tipsy. "Quite the tippler," Tchaikovsky wrote of Brahms afterward (look who's talking!). Two years later they met up again in Hamburg and got drunk together over lunch. Tchaikovsky wrote to his brother that he enjoyed the "simplicity and directness" of Brahms' company, conceding that his music was noble and elevated but still lacking the crucial element of beauty. (As one who for many years had a similar view of Brahms and referred to him as "Clodhopper," but then became enlightened, I can only presume to wish Tchaikovsky had given his colleague's music more time for the "columns" to become apparent.) Brahms lingered for the premiere of Tchaikovsky's 5th Symphony, but notwithstanding their growing personal rapport (and their mutual detestation of Wagner) was unimpressed.

How could that be? The 5th is mightier than the 4th, but the 4th is mighty enough, and never more mighty than the other night. I doubt you'd hear a more astounding combination of passion and precision anywhere in the world. The clarity and dynamic variation of the pizzicato movement in particular was miraculous. (Cheers to Sir Michael Fowler, another great tippler, for the acoustics!)

Johannes and Pyotr, thanks for the intoxication! I hope you two are tippling in Eternity!

Wonderful piece...

Olivia's picture

Pyotr must've been impossible to please. I hear Brahms (that VC is exquisite!) and I definitely see beautiful pedestals and looming, erect columns. Eye

The way you write about these gods, drawing on their real life histories and personalities is priceless. Very enjoyable! Especially when one knows the music.

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