Saturday night’s Minnesota Orchestra concert was very fine. Given that we do not live in an age of Brahms conductors and given that only the orchestras in Berlin, Cleveland, Dresden, Leipzig and Vienna can, on occasion, display themselves as genuine Brahms ensembles, the concert was a success.
Vanska, an interventionist conductor, played too freely with tempi and dynamics, as is his wont, and was prone to exaggeration in passages that speak for themselves, such as the Andante of the Third Symphony, which only need be played simply and eloquently in order to come off. There is a fine line between Classicism and Romanticism in Brahms, and it was Classicism that suffered in Vanska’s hands.
The performances, nonetheless, were serious ones—and often satisfying. Vanska knows how to maintain tension, perhaps his greatest gift, and he knows how to secure a high standard of execution from his ensemble.
The Third Symphony, the most difficult Brahms symphony to bring off, was wholly successful, quirks and all. I was riveted by the performance, even when Vanska pushed the level of expression to extreme or adopted an uncalled-for new tempo or unduly emphasized inner voices or drew triple fortissimo from the orchestra when single fortissimo would have done. No doubt Fritz Reiner, had he been in Orchestra Hall, would have been scathingly dismissive of Vanska’s interpretation—yet, as a one-off performance, it worked perfectly well.
The first movement of the Brahms Violin Concerto was a joy, probably because the players were fully engaged (not often true in standard concerto literature). There were some slips in ensemble, and the orchestra’s sound quality became strident at climaxes, but Vanska and the orchestra offered a successful reading of the first movement. Indeed, Vanska and the orchestra carried the first movement, not the soloist.
Ehnes does not possess an individual sound, and he did not display much personality. He offered a dry, academic performance of what I believe to be the greatest of all violin concertos.
Ehnes never once turned the concerto into a profound personal statement. He did not soar in the first movement, as the soloist must, and he brought too small an array of expressive devices to all three movements. This shortcoming became critical in the third-movement Rondo, the dullest I have ever heard, in concert or on disc.
I last heard the Brahms Violin Concerto in the hands of Vadim Repin. Repin operated on an entirely different—and higher—level than Ehnes. Repin shaded and colored his tone all evening, phrased with great freedom and specificity, and offered the widest possible range of expression, all without violating the core Classicism at the root of Brahms—and Repin did so without satisfactory orchestral support and without a sympathetic conductor. Repin had been vital, and urgent, and commanding; Ehnes was none of those things.