The Philadelphia Orchestra with pianist Helene Grimaud

The drama of Brahms

The Classical era concerto format grew out of chamber music ensembles, so the collaboration between the soloist and the orchestra is a defining element. In the most magnificent examples, the Mozart piano concertos, the effect is often likened to opera, with voices traded one against the other. As the form entered the 19th century and the Romantic age, the soloist evolved into a protagonist, not a partner: The piano concerto pitted the piano against the orchestra.

A natural affinity for Brahms: Hélène Grimaud. (Photo via helenegrimaud.com)

This is very much the case for the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2. While there are many moments of lusciously beautiful ensemble playing, with the piano solo woven into the fabric of the orchestra, the main effect is confrontational: The piano is a personification, the hero battling through a thicket of danger.

The performance by the splendid French pianist Hélène Grimaud, with the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin, made no attempts to smooth over this combative quality. Grimaud, who also played the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1 in recent seasons here, has a natural affinity for the gruff, but deeply expressive, soul of this beloved composer. She favors a big, dynamic sound, is not averse to percussive tonality, and finds a propulsive momentum in the characteristic polyrhythms of the music.

Nézet-Séguin’s vision of Brahms emphasizes the dramatic contrast with the soloist. His attention to the vertical details of the score — the harmonic structure — did not exactly slow the pace of the music, but emphasized architecture over action. This superficially divergent pairing of stylistic approaches turned out to be a highly satisfying collaboration, however, engendering a theatrical complexity. If Mozart’s concertos echo the elegance of Italian opera, then this Brahms concerto resembles a Shakespeare play, with the piano playing the part of one of his great and conflicted kings.

A sunny work by a troubled genius

The orchestral attention to detail in the Brahms brought even greater rewards in Nézet-Séguin’s riveting reading of Schumann’s Symphony No. 1. This fresh music, one of the sunniest works in the oeuvre of the troubled genius, sounded like a concerto for orchestra in this rendition. Nézet-Séguin has no qualms about exploiting the famed virtuosity of his ensemble, allowing for considerable freedom of individual phrasing within a taut framework, even in rapid passages. The conductor’s ear for orchestral balance was especially impressive this night, producing a lucidity of texture that was astonishing.

Even better, Nézet-Séguin never used any of these dazzling techniques for anything other than the realization of the composer’s vision. Schumann was, arguably, the first full-throated musical Romantic, and this performance captured that spirit with thrilling swagger.

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