The final two subscription concerts of Performance Santa Fe’s season offered a study in contrasts. On May 8, at St. Francis Auditorium, violinist Christian Tetzlaff and pianist Lars Vogt performed a fascinating recital that comprised all three of the violin sonatas of Johannes Brahms. These were deeply considered, intellectually driven interpretations, crafted not to underscore loveliness but rather to delve into the detailed minutiae that make Brahms so remarkable. Whereas most mainstream violinists cultivate a luscious tone practically all the time, Tetzlaff explored the breadth of timbres available to him, whether dulcet or astringent, alighting on one sound or another to heighten expressive ideas and the distinctive character of the phrase. His sound often had a slight rasp to it, not grating but instead providing high-relief definition to his tone, a sonic equivalent to the burr that lends intensity to the outlines of an etching. Meticulous shadings of vibrato played a striking role in his approach; he often dispensed with it entirely, rarely laid it on very thick, and never allowed a “one size fits all” attitude to that component of his playing. His interpretations were infused with subtle drama, and the audience was obviously captivated, providing a canvas of silence on which his musical storytelling might unfold.

Vogt made rather less of an individualistic impression, but he supported Tetzlaff with sober restraint. He did not offer quite the clarity that his partner did, but perhaps the violinist’s precise contours represented enough of a good thing. The G-major Sonata (Op. 78) is a surefire piece, and here it benefited to an unusual degree from the careful voicing of suspensions. The magical moment in its first movement where the piano assumes the theme, with the violin accompanying pizzicato, nearly always comes across as a moment of particular genius, as indeed it did here.

IT  is commonplace to think of Brahms as the “Romantic Classicist,” carrying the principles of Mozart and Beethoven through to their last stand. The most famous champion of a dissenting view was Arnold Schoenberg, the fearsome engine of modernism, who celebrated the Brahms centennial in 1933 by delivering a lecture titled “Brahms the Progressive.” There he sought “to prove that Brahms, the classicist, the academician, was a great innovator in the realm of musical language, that, in fact, he was a great progressive.”

“A contemporary composer,” Schoenberg argued, “connects phrases independent of their size and shape, only vigilant of harmonic progression, of rhythmic and motival contents, fluency, and logic,” and he found that the music of Brahms provided an essential path toward that point of arrival.

Tetzlaff and Vogt may have had Schoenberg’s thesis in mind. They wiped away the impasto of arch-Romantic interpretation that has largely taken over the performance tradition for these works, instead stressing the logic of “rhythmic and motival contents”; and they underscored the connection further by placing a brief dab of modernism in between the three Brahms sonatas — the Four Pieces for Violin and Piano (Op. 7) by Schoenberg’s pupil Anton Webern. Haunting specimens of Webern’s aphoristic style, these finely crafted, atonal miniatures run less than five minutes in toto, and their material is compacted to a point where a single note can play a part as important as an entire phrase might have in earlier music, a further conceptual step along the modernist route Webern’s teacher saw as emerging from Brahms. These crystallized pieces cleansed the ear when they were played in the middle of the first half of the concert, separating the first two Brahms sonatas. Although the set did not quite serve the same purpose after intermission, as a prelude to the Third Sonata, it was nonetheless a rare delight to hear these rarely encountered pieces in their entirety for another visit.

Each of the three sonatas was invested with a distinct character. The Sonata No. 2 in A major (Op. 100) came across as the kindest and gentlest of the three, though the performers did not resort to cloying ingratiation. Its second movement, in fact, struck a posture of neo-Baroque nobility, which alternated with sections of dancelike vigor that suggested Dvoˇrák, whom Brahms served as a mentor. The Third Sonata, in D minor (Op. 108), emerged without a break from the second go-round of the Webern pieces, further underscoring the conceptual connection, and again it featured a very exposed sort of playing. Vogt was here more opulent in his pianism. He shaded his tone through feather-light touches in some of his pedaling and, in the third movement, seemed rather willful in punching out odd moments of the bass line. For a well-deserved encore, the two played the finale of Dvoˇrák’s G-major Sonatina (Op. 100), from 1893, a piece reflecting its composer’s infatuation with American folk music and nicely recalling the spirit that had been suggested a bit earlier in Brahms’ Second Sonata. This was a smart recital in both conception and execution.

More Brahms arrived by way of his String Sextet No. 2 in G major (Op. 36), which occupied the first half of the concert of the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields Chamber Ensemble on May 12 at the Lensic Performing Arts Center. It was a pity, since the audience would have been better served by holding onto memories of Tetzlaff’s sonata evening. The St. Martin’s musicians opened in a spirit of wooziness born of discordant intonation, which inevitably led to a flabby sound overall. Theirs was a casual, slapdash interpretation — an unambiguous shortfall from chamber-music ideals. The first movement just waltzed along as if every page were the same as every other. In the tranquillo tune of the second movement, the first viola repeatedly failed to match the articulation of the mordent (a mini-trill) the first violin had articulated a moment before — an entry-level insouciance. It was announced in advance that this was the final appearance of the ensemble’s American tour, and it seemed as if the players’ minds were already fixed on home. At least some of these musicians were not playing up to the level of their potential; others, I fear, were.

Curiously, the ensuing pieces signaled a marked improvement. Both were octets, and perhaps the expanded forces ushered the players closer to the more familiar musical environment of a chamber orchestra, which is what the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields really is. Both were also the work of young composers — marvelous achievements in both cases but not presenting the richness of conundrums that the Brahms does. Shostakovich’s Two Pieces for String Octet (Op. 11), completed when he was nineteen, demanded pluck from the players, and this they delivered. So, too, did Mendelssohn’s familiar Octet, almost unbelievably a work of a sixteen-year-old. The piece makes substantial technical demands on the players, but apart from that it doesn’t present great interpretative demands. The musicians handled it well and were generally at their best when they just let the notes fly. Nonetheless, the original ideas they brought to the task were mostly enriching, as when, in the work’s dazzling finale, they imposed a gradual crescendo on a series of repeated notes that are written without dynamic inflection in the score and really did benefit from the extra help the group provided.

A conductor steps up

The Santa Fe Symphony Orchestra and Chorus wrapped up its subscription season this past weekend with two performances of Verdi’s Requiem at the Lensic Performing Arts Center. I heard the first, on May 16, which was formidably executed. The conductor of this robust reading was James Feddeck, paying a well-deserved return visit in the organization’s three-season search for its next principal conductor.

The Symphony Chorus, directed by Linda Raney, was securely prepared and carefully blended throughout, and the quartet of vocal soloists was impressive. Soprano Alexandra Loutsion is a former Santa Fe Opera apprentice who stood in readiness as the standby for the title roles in that company’s recent productions of Tosca and Fidelio, although the occasion did not arise for her to fill in for either. Her voice, which possessed spinto heft, boasted buttery richness in its high range and projected warmly in its low register even through Verdi’s plush orchestration. The Verdi opera whose music most resembles the Requiem is Aida, and one could easily imagine Loutsion sinking her claws into the demanding lead of that work. In fact, one could cast a very respectable Aida around this solo quartet, although the somewhat smaller voice of tenor Joshua Guerrero would probably be entering dangerous territory in a role such as Radamès. He was well suited to the tenor solos in the Requiem, though, infusing the “Ingemisco” with lyrical sweetness while conveying passion through Italianate details of vocalism. He and rock-solid, sonorous baritone Lester Lynch proved especially elegant in their “Hostias” duet. Mezzo-soprano Margaret Mezzacappa displayed a commanding style of the sort associated (for better or worse) with Aida’s rival, Amneris, a spinto singer verging into the realm of the dramatic mezzo-soprano. In this case, vocal amplitude sometimes came at the cost of precisely centered pitches. This proved especially problematic in the “Lux aeterna” movement (a trio for mezzo-soprano, tenor, and bass), where her tendency to veer sharp threatened to lead into tonally untethered territory. Lynch, however, held firm the course, proving a sturdy anchor for the bass line.

I am not sure why the Lensic’s electronic amplification system was pressed into service for this concert, but it detracted from the effect. It mostly picked up the soloists, who I am sure would have projected perfectly well unassisted, and enveloped them in a reverberating halo of their own tones. During Loutsion’s affecting performance of the “Libera me,” it sometimes seemed as if we were also hearing a parallel performance that was taking place in an adjoining auditorium. Electronic amplification is not a feature that should be employed in classical concerts.

Feddeck coordinated Verdi’s behemoth adeptly, filling it with unflagging urgency. In a few places, his glance seemed to encourage the soloists to draw out phrases while his hands impelled the orchestra straight on to a cadence — where, of course, the instruments would arrive before the singers did. This confused me. The orchestra played to its skillful standard. Extra trumpets stationed in the eaves inspired regret rather than terror in the “Dies irae.” Some musicians deserved special accolades at the top and bottom of the ensemble, specifically piccolo player Peter Ader and bass drummer David Tolen. Both contributed vividly to the emotional extremes, with Tolen portraying “the judge who will smash everything completely” through thuds of Mahlerian finality. Some tempos were on the fleet side, with the “Agnus Dei” unrolling at an unusually quick clip. The Requiem overall might have benefited from more luxuriant pacing here and there. The final pages in particular pushed through to the double bar without quite conveying resolution. This is probably what led to the audience’s uncertainty about whether or not the piece had ended and then (once folks realized it was indeed over) belated applause that was less enthusiastic than the performance deserved.

Feddeck’s invitation to return for a follow-up appearance obviously signals that the Santa Fe Symphony is looking at him closely. This is as it should be, at least from the audience’s perspective. He has been particularly brave in his repertoire, selecting pieces that require large-scale vision and a firm hand. Verdi’s Requiem comes in the wake of his performance last season of Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony. Curiously, both pieces were written in the same year. Feddeck is apparently a specialist in 1874. Should he become the symphony’s principal conductor, we may perhaps look forward to further repertoire from that year. As it happens, it’s an outstanding list that could include Grieg’s Peer Gynt music, Dvoˇrák’s Symphony No. 4, Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole, Musorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, Saint-Saëns’ Danse macabre, and Smetana’s The Moldau, in addition to orchestral bits from Carmen and Die Fledermaus. I’d happily hear his take on any of them. ◀