The enduring beauty of Brahms

What is it about the music of Johannes Brahms that so tugs at the heartstrings? Perhaps it is the sighs of a man who, unable to fully unite with the great love of his life, gave voice to passions otherwise inexpressible by channeling his deepest longings into music.

If you were to ask violinist Vadim Gluzman, who recently headlined the San Francisco Symphony, what makes Brahms great, you’d get this response: “When Brahms arrived in my life, I knew he’d never leave. He’s one composer who brings you back time after time to the same piece. There is absolutely endless amount of information to connect to, to fulfill. He’s one of probably two or three musical miracles, Mozart and Bach being the other two.”

Throughout the course of three weeks, Michael Tilson Thomas’ San Francisco Symphony Brahms Festival will explore the breadth of Brahms’ gifts.

The monumental programming, which features works written between 1856 and 1891, includes both piano concertos, the final Fourth Symphony, and the German Requiem (Ein deutsches Requiem).

To round out the picture, an hour before each “main” concert, members of the San Francisco Symphony present intimate chamber music by music’s most famous pair of nonconsummated lovers, Clara Schumann and Brahms, with different works performed each night.

The festival begins Thursday at 7 p.m. (repeating through May 11) with MTT and Leif Ove Andsnes performing Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2. Critic Eduard Hanslick, initially disparaging of the work, eventually came around, declaring, “It is like a dark well; the longer we look into it, the more brightly the stars shine back.”

Modern listeners with ears attuned to the likes of Debussy and Shostakovich have a much easier time peering into the music’s gifts. Also featured is the final Fourth Symphony. It was the last piece of his music Brahms heard performed before succumbing to liver cancer in 1897, one month before his 66th birthday.

May 15-17 brings SFS favorite Yefim Bronfman performing Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1. Completed 19 years before the First Symphony, the concerto is paired with the roughly contemporaneous Serenade No. 2 and justifiably loved Variations on a Theme by Haydn.

The last week is reserved for Brahms’ major choral triumph, the exalted German Requiem. With two star soloists, the ethereal soprano Laura Claycomb and remarkably profound baritone Matthias Goerne, the performance has a good chance of conveying every iota of transcendent spiritual intent that Brahms poured into his indescribably beautiful secular masterpiece.

The early Four Songs for Women’s Chorus with Two Horns and Harp and Geistliches Lied give the SFS Chorus further opportunity to cap an extraordinarily rich festival.

IF YOU GO

Brahms Festival Presented by San Francisco Symphony

Where: Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco

When: Thursday through May 24

Tickets: $35 to $125

Contact: (415) 864-6000 or www.sfsymphony.org

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