As my sister and I took our nosebleed seats at Avery Fisher Hall, she sang the praises of an artisanal butter she had recently discovered, from a farm in upstate New York. As city dwellers, we import much of our corporeal sustenance; why not the spiritual kind as well? The idle thought instantly justified its existence when the strings of the Russian National Orchestra poured out like Béchamel in the opening movement of Schubert's “Unfinished” Symphony. Like any good chef, of course, conductor Vladimir Jurowski supplied a variety of flavors over the course of an intriguing program. The Unfinished, from 1822, exemplified one of the possible fates for a composer struggling with symphonic form and orchestration: if you're stuck trying to figure out where to go next, don't. Anton Safronov's “completion” of the third (from Schubert's piano sketches) and fourth (assembled from other Schubert works) movements, while respectful, was unsubtle and fussy. In particular, the finale, while full of Schubertian rapid shifts between parallel major and minor keys, placed too high a premium on deconstructing the orchestra into sequences of instrument groups. Had Schubert gone down any sort of path, it might well have been that sort — Beethoven's Eroica was no longer new by then — but Safronov's work inevitably lacked the hard-earned elegance and surface simplicity characteristic of the master and his extant two movements. This would be a terribly unfair comparison, if only the 35-year-old Safronov (who is still very much alive and completing his own works, too) hadn't invited it.
With strings stretching from wall to wall, a much larger ensemble backed pianist Stephen Hough in the Brahms D minor concerto. Where Schubert chose to punt, Brahms found a way to make his half-symphony go: add a protagonist and try again. Having Romanticized and modernized Schubert, Jurowski chose to emphasize mid-century Brahms the classicist: the orchestra's sound was less rounded and more directed, with clear contrapuntal lines and a tempo noticeably faster than the one I grew up listening to. Evidently Hough felt the same way, for he took every solo as an opportunity to stretch phrases out with Romantic flair. There was a section of the Adagio in which I was especially struck by how much he was enjoying his sojourn there; moments later came the only notable lapse in the impeccable taste for which he is revered by piano connoisseurs, when his expanded sense of time prevented a bouncing figure of two descending voices from being perceptible as melodic lines. In the case of a Brahms, whose style contains multitudes, it's difficult to determine whether Jurowski's or Hough's overall approach was the more true. What is certain is that the pairing of these two artists aptly summarized the challenges of interpreting Brahms. Every time the orchestra returned, tempo at full tilt, you could hear the slightly mismatched gears grinding for a moment until they meshed.
The audience was ultimately won over by a rousing, well-synchronized Rondo in which Jurowski's emphasis on instrumental counterpoint paid off, themes bouncing from timbre to timbre, dynamics shaded by instrument group even within phrases. It was a sublime moment — even at his most ungainly, Brahms is always good for a few of those — and once again, it threw Safronov's attempt at similar orchestral effects into unflattering relief. Poor fellow.