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Brahms and Mozart: Gerard Schwarz, conductor, Jon Kimura Parker and Orli Shaham, pianos, Seattle Symphony, Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 24.9.2009 (BJ)

After all the romantic afflatus of the previous week’s gala opener, it was back to serious classical “Masterworks” for the Seattle Symphony’s first subscription program of the season.

24 September, moreover, celebrated Mayor Nickels’s and the City Council’s proclamation of “Gerard Schwarz Day” in Seattle, marking the conductor’s silver anniversary as music director. Despite too many empty seats (perhaps because Pacific Northwest Ballet opened its season the same evening), the festive note was sounded both in the quality of the music-making and in the evident enthusiasm of the ovation that greeted Schwarz as he mounted the Benaroya Hall podium.

Strongly shaped interpretations of Brahms began and ended the evening, bracketing an equally satisfying reading of Mozart’s Double Piano Concerto. Too often, performances of this splendid piece sound as if one of the pianists is teaching the other how to play it. (The recording by Barenboim and Ashkenazy may serve as a case in point.) This time, happily, Jon Kimura Parker and Orli Shaham were decisively united in both their understanding of the music’s style and their technical assurance.

There was enough contrast in actual sound–Parker’s incisive and brilliant, Shaham’s warmer and more caressing–to make the interplay lucid, but at every turn each player’s phrasing served to illuminate and expand on what the other had offered rather than to suggest a correction of it. As encore, they offered an effervescent Brahms Hungarian Dance in tribute to the conductor’s jubilee.

Schwarz may be known more for his sterling Shostakovich and Mahler than for his expertise with Mozart and Brahms. Still, his twenty-year stewardship of New York’s “Mostly Mozart” festival must have helped to establish the authority he brought to the concerto, and his Brahms has been growing in stature over recent seasons.

The Variations on the St. Anthony Chorale was affectionately done, with more emphasis than usual placed on the mysterious lyricism of the two slower variations, and in the First Symphony it was again subtlety and depth of feeling that impressed as much as the drama of the first movement and the triumph of the conclusion. I didn’t agree with every one of Schwarz’s interpretative decisions; maybe his refusal to dawdle robbed that ending of a fraction of its grandeur. But this was a reading that combined fervent emotion with compelling cohesiveness, and the playing, from the bigger effects to Maria Larionoff’s sumptuous violin solo, Ben Hausmann’s sinuous oboe line, and John Cerminaro’s exceptionally rhythmic articulation of the finale’s horn-call–with the short note properly stressed–did it full justice.

Bernard Jacobson

This review appeared in part in The Seattle Times

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