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Double your pleasure with Brahms Double Concerto

It seems odd, or ironic, that the last major orchestral work by Johannes Brahms is among his least played and appreciated, a piece many people admire rather than love. Unlike his four symphonies, this creation spends more time on the shelf than on stage, making us wonder if Brahms had run out of gas 10 years before his death − or simply wrote something listeners fail to grasp.

Much has been written about the Double Concerto in A Minor, especially after its premiere in 1887. Clara Schumann, a lifelong friend of Brahms, felt the writing for the two instruments was less than intuitive. The Viennese critic Eduard Hanslick, who wrote favorably about the composer’s works, considered it “a product of a great constructive mind rather than an irresistible inspiration of imagination and invention.’’

But where does this often-misunderstood work stand today, especially among those who perform it? I posed the question to Yoni Draiblate, TFO’s principal cellist, who along with Concertmaster Jeffrey Multer, appears in three Hough Family Foundation Masterworks concerts this weekend. Music Director Michael Francis rounds out the program with Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin and Elgar’s Enigma Variations.

“I don’t feel it’s gotten a bad rap at all, nor do I think it’s an inferior piece in any way,’’ Draiblate said of the Brahms. “But you’re correct; it’s not performed as often as his other concertos and it’s anyone’s guess as to why.’’

One guess is because most concertos feature one soloist playing the piano, violin, cello or clarinet, for instance. Brahms upped the ante with a pairing that forces listeners to decide “who’s in charge?’’ Having two voices in the spotlight makes the work unusual, Draiblate added, “considering the musical era in which it was written.’’

Then there’s the issue of economics, Draiblate said: “Two soloists double the fees, airline tickets, and hotel rooms. And don’t forget an extra flight ticket for the cello.’’

TFO doesn’t have that problem because of the high quality of its ensemble, and Draiblate and Multer are regarded as top-shelf talents. So rather than hiring touring soloists, TFO pulled from its own ranks of extraordinary musicians.

As for the music itself, Brahms drew inspiration from Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante and Beethoven’s Triple Concerto, which took wing from the older Baroque concerto grosso form, pitting a small group of soloists against a larger ensemble. He also admired Giovanni Viotti’s Violin Concerto No. 22, which he quotes, elusively, in the second theme of the opening movement.

Brahms begins with an aggressive introduction by the orchestra, followed by a low growl from the cello. Soon the violin peeks out from underneath, finds its footing and meets its partner in conversation before the orchestra returns to its initial jolting theme. Brahms exploits the tonal weights – and disparities – of the two instruments and keeps the orchestral textures light enough to prevent them from overwhelming the soloists.

The middle movement glows with a Schubertian sweetness, the soloists working in soft partnership against an orchestra reduced to a chamber ensemble in sound. Like his Violin Concerto, Brahms imbues the last movement with a spirited rondo that harkens back to the composer’s own Hungarian Dances, and the concerto ends in the triumphal key of A major.

“Brahms never seems to have the two instruments fight for dominance, but rather take turns while engaging in a lively conversation,’’ Draiblate said. “In this respect, both have different but equal voices and a chance to express themselves fully.’’

Elgar & Brahms
May 17-19
For details and tickets, click here

Kurt Loft is a freelance journalist, member of the Music Critics Association of North America and former music critic for The Tampa Tribune. He lives in St. Petersburg.