Frühbeck makes orchestra shine

Posted: February 25, 2012

Though we're taught to venerate the voices of authority in classical-music performance, this week's Brahms Symphony No. 1 by the Philadelphia Orchestra was yet another case for casting against type. Though educated in Munich, Spanish conductor Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos is most often heard in Mediterranean repertoire.

Just as his Beethoven Symphony No. 5 was a revelation here in recent seasons, his Brahms Symphony No. 1 Thursday at the Kimmel Center showed why Philadelphia Orchestra musicians come out of retirement to play for him. Tempos and pacing were middle-of-the-road and confidently judged, as if he had this cold-weather repertoire (as critic Tim Page once dubbed it) in his genes.

Lacking was a sense of ironclad duty, of being trapped in tradition with only one way to proceed (sometimes the case with Kurt Masur). Maybe Frühbeck's tendency to slow down at climaxes didn't represent the most tasteful approach toward Brahms. But what life there was in this oft-heard piece!

The symphony itself is one of the half-dozen in the repertoire that showcase the Philadelphia Orchestra to the maximum, and not just because of the string sound. Pivotal moments are assigned to individual sections as well as principal players. The winds and brass - we all know who they are - weren't just good, they were soulful (and hopefully not because they're on the verge of leaving to work elsewhere).

What speaks even better for the orchestra was its encounter with Mozart's Serenata notturna (K. 239), a charming, medium-weight work whose musical incidents are guided by a string quartet within the orchestra. Such pieces - not part of the usual repertoire, and requiring chamber-music finesse - can show the best orchestras at their worst. Not on Thursday. Most remarkable, concertmaster David Kim was supposed to head the quartet, but due to illness was replaced by Juliette Kang, and all went well anyway.

Veteran pianist Emanuel Ax, that gift that keeps on giving, played Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 25 (K. 503). As much as I admired his clean, transparent coloring, crisp articulation, and affectionate rapport with the incidental soloists in the piece, I wished he were playing something else. His treatment of the left-hand bass lines had a kind of music-box preciousness. The trills were so clean and prim that they were almost cute. His voice of authority was everywhere, but wasn't fully engaged. Frühbeck was doing everything that he should. Well, so was everybody.

But when Ax played his encore - the reflective, mellow first movement of Schumann's Fantasiestücke - there was a great sense of coming home. All the different voices in the music were molded with a musical sureness and honesty that also yielded maximum expressivity.

One doesn't really part company with Ax (even performances of his that I actively disliked at first turned out to be the ones I fondly remember), but we're certainly allowed to like some of his concerts more than others.


 Additional performance:


8 p.m. Saturday at the Kimmel Center. Information: 215-893-1999 or www.philorch.org.

Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com.

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