Were there a classical-music Mount Rushmore, Brahms would be as unreachably etched in stone as Bach and Beethoven. That vision of untouchable monumentality, however, wasn't supported by Saturday's Philadelphia Brahms Festival, which explored early works and lesser-known antecedents that gave the composer flesh, blood, and ancestry.
Brahms might not have liked that. Modern musicians rage at him for destroying so many works of his that he considered substandard. He also revised published works later in life, contributing to the idea that he sprang upon the world fully formed. Over the three concerts at Church of the Holy Trinity (of which I heard two), seldom-heard works by Beethoven and Handel put Brahms in a dramatically different (and sometimes demystified) light.
The only missing piece was German baroque composer Heinrich Schutz, an important Brahms hero, whose predominantly choral output would have required musical resources outside the usual pool of talent from Astral Artists, which produced the festival. As it was, Astral's recently deceased artistic director, Julian Rodescu, assembled many notable musicians, not just young talents such as violinists Kristin Lee and Korbinian Altenberger but also the more seasoned violinist Soovin Kim and cellist Peter Stumpf.
The impact of such juxtapositions was unpredictable. On the baroque Brahms program, cellist Susan Babini played Brahms' popular Sonata for Cello and Piano (Op. 38) with an emotional restraint that suggested she was returning the piece to a pre-Jacqueline du Pré performance manner, before the piece became an emotional soliloquy. I can't say I responded to Babini's sleek contours. Is it possible we've only discovered the sonata's true worth in recent decades?
The ebullient Serenade No. 1 (Op. 11), often heard in a bigger-orchestra version when at all, was given a smaller-scale, more wind-heavy performance that looked back to the wind serenades of Mozart. In that context, one admired Brahms more for having digested this genre and made it so much his own. Also, the piece becomes more interesting as a strange hybrid rather than a forerunner to his symphonies.
Brahms' single greatest piano work, Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, was juxtaposed with the piece from which the theme came, Handel's Piano Suite No. 1, rendering an opposite surprise. So much of what I've always loved about the Brahms was drawn directly from Handel.
Beyond the juxtapositions, the greatest discovery for me was the Piano Quartet in C minor (Op. 60). The first two movements are instances of the composer in a state of perspiration with minimal inspiration - one reason why it's not often played. Yet the piano quartet ensemble headed by Ilya Poletaev (who had been only intermittently impressive in the Brahms Handel Variations) discovered something in the final two movements that's seldom encountered in the composer's output: an elegiac resignation that opens the door to simplicity and serenity.