CBSO Brahms 3 and an amazing improvisation from Gabriela Montero

Symphony Hall ****

For all his legendary crustiness, Brahms was the most noble-hearted of composers. Despite an artificial feud between him and Wagner fomented by the Viennese musical press, on the day that composer died Brahms laid down his baton at a rehearsal, announced "today a genius has left us", and cancelled proceedings.
Tchaikovsky couldn't stand Brahms, declaring him "that scoundrel, that talentless bastard", but here they both were on this CBSO matinee programme, one of the most popular works by each of them cheek-by-jowl.
Before that, though, the concert began with an amazing rendition of a Ukrainian song delivered by the standing CBSO players, conductor Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla singing a solo, the afternoon's pianist Gabriela Montero making a heartwarming contribution. This was the CBSO showing its customary emotional generosity.
Then Montero turned to the matter in hand, Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto no.1, a work whose barnstorminess caused its own composer discomfort, but which here she managed to weld into a convincing unity, not least the crazily-structured opening movement. Her warm, assured pianism had an unflashiness Tchaikovsky would have welcomed, and in the andantino (undoubtedly the Concerto's most successful, because unselfconscious, movement) she was joined by wonderful orchestral duettists, not least the formidable cello front desk.
The finale was crisply turned, but then came something I regret hearing in a classical concert at Symphony Hall: an ovation punctuated by strident whistles, shattering the memory of the music we had just heard. Brayed "bravos" are bad enough, but this was off the scale.
Readers will know that encores are anathema to me, but the encore here was amazing, Montero structuring a brilliant, totally musical improvisation on a theme suggested spontaneously by an audience member. So we had Scott Joplin's Entertainer first dreamily Chopin'd, and then built into a magnificent Bach Fantasia. This deservedly brought the house down. And to think Montero will perform similar feats seven times as the orchestra embarks on its latest tour!
We concluded with Brahms' Third Symphony, strings sounding a little thin in an underpowered opening but soon warming into an appreciative unfolding of the work's textures. Brass were sonorously Wagnerian (now there's a thing!), woodwind deliciously pastoral. The third movement was lugubriously paced, and the finale conveyed little of its twilight magic.
This was a dutiful reading under Mirga, one which never really got off the ground.
Christopher Morley

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