Heroism, Romantic Style: The Curtis Orchestra Plays Brahms and Strauss

The idea of the hero goes back in Western literature to Homer’s Achilles, and, in mythology, to Samson and Hercules. Alexander the Great fit the mold as a conqueror, and so did Napoleon, the original dedicatee of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony. The culture hero, however, as exemplified by Moses and Jesus, has an even greater hold on the imagination, and the nineteenth century—beginning with Beethoven himself—identified that hero increasingly with the artist.

This motif was to the fore in the Curtis Orchestra’s final performance of the current season at the Kimmel Center, prior to its departure for a European tour. Johannes Brahms’ First Piano Concerto began life as two-piano sonata before morphing into a symphony and achieving its final form as a concerto. There’s only a single piano in it, but with enough notes for two, while the orchestral part, with its rich, heavy sonorities, all but defies the soloist to assert himself through its textures. It was Beethoven, of course, who reconceived the classical concerto as a contest between the solo performer and the orchestra, a pattern of the heroic itself. Only with the Brahms First, though, does that contest take on the character of a struggle, in which the piano must compete sonically with an accompaniment whose tutti makes as little concession to it as possible. In that sense it is, particularly in the opening Maestoso movement, the quintessentially Romantic concerto, and a height Brahms never chose to scale again: his much later Second Concerto, while no less virtuosic, was far less combative. Rudolf Serkin made the First Concerto a specialty; his son Peter, long identified with the Curtis and now a lean and patrician seventy, was a bit choppy in the Maestoso, but settled down to give a fine account of his own in the succeeding Adagio and the concluding Rondo. The Orchestra was robust under the hand of Finnish conductor Osmo Vänskä, with first-rate string sound in particular.

Richard Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben—A Hero’s Life—concluded the program, and, both chronologically and programmatically, the career of Romantic heroism. Strauss wrote it in 1898, a year after completing his musical version of Cervantes’ satire on the chivalric hero of the late Middle Ages, Don Quixote. The hero of Ein Heldenleben is the composer himself, and themes from his eight previous tone poems are reprised near the end of the score, like a tally of the labors of Hercules. Such posturing is, as often in Strauss, assertive and ironic at the same time, an acknowledgment that the Romantic model, too, is passé, and can be limned only as a splendid buffoonery. The forty-minute score itself, in six sections, is played without pause, and, with a huge orchestra including eight horns, it tests the mettle of any ensemble even today. The Curtis responded fully to the challenge, and Vänskä drew from it a performance that was first-rate by the highest standard. Particularly outstanding was the solo violin work by Concertmaster Maria Ioudenitch, to whom Maestro Vänskä quite appropriately handed the bouquet of flowers he received as the concert ended. Europe certainly has a treat coming.

The concert began with Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, which has become a kind of anthem for national occasions of mourning, from the funeral of Franklin Roosevelt to commemorations of 9/11. The connotation of heroism is unmistakable here too, although Barber himself was (discreetly) dismayed by the ceremonial uses to which the work was put, and, if it’s hard to give the music a rest, we might try hearing it as a fine example of craftsmanly writing for string choirs. Conducting fellow Connor Gray Covington, who led the performance, took it that way, with expressive results.

About Robert Zaller 54 Articles
Dr. Robert Zaller is an American author, playwright, and professor of history at Drexel University. An authority on British political history and constitutional thought, he writes extensively on politics, modern literature, film, music and art. He has been a Guggenheim fellow and a fellow of the Royal Historical Society.

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