When Viktoria Mullova triumphantly but calmly finished the last note of Brahms’ Violin Concerto in D major in unison with the Berliner Philharmoniker under Claudio Abbado, you can hear on the Polygram recording the response of a Tokyo audience in 1992: enthusiastic, but polite. This is not altogether different from Yo-Yo Ma’s observation of the English audience: “The English are very auditory and they applaud less, but you can feel the warmth.” (Ulla Colgrass, For the Love of Music)

Visually speaking, Toronto audience’s response to the same work last week was a lot warmer than the Japanese: the ovation for the soloist Vadim Gluzman was boisterous and long-lasting, in contrast to the critic John Terauds’ cool review in which he praises the conductor Klas for his “depth and warmth” but deplores Gluzman for his coldness: “ there is nothing in his music-making that engages the heart.”

Not surprising: In 2009 Terauds delivered a similar verdict to the Cleveland Orchestra after their towering performance of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 under Franz Welser-Möst in Roy Thomson Hall. Key to his criticism was again an assumed lack of spontaneity and humanity. But what is humanity? what is the human touch we are looking for? What is spontaneity? Is spontaneous response to a canonic work possible?

Those are the questions for today’s audience, and those are the questions for Brahms. Here I would like to quote in length Paul Henry Lang’s observation of the composer (Music in Western Civilization):

“The great art attained by Brahms makes his works classically poised, but one feels that this calm and poise hide something, a tragic philosophy, a developed world of pessimism and resignation. His soul was sick, but he discovered the illness and tried to combat it with discipline, for his illness was the romantic ill, the overflowing richness of the romantic soul. Therefore he tried to limit it, bind it, balance it with art and study. The struggle was profound and the relapses frequent … what had been impossible to achieve spontaneously – order in the feverish world … could be done by applying the brakes of art, and that Brahms set out to learn how to manipulate them … he learned also that the taming of the imagination demands compromises and sacrifices.”

“This explains Brahms’s extraordinary sense for the past, which, like his noble sensibility, is an aristocratic trait … Such an infinitely sensitive and complicated soul does not give immediate impressions but nourishes itself from memories discreetly veiled, therefore his art is less lyric and dramatic than epic. At the bottom of this epic poetry there is a secret but undeniable subjectivity, yet its appearance seems objective. His sensibility enables him to perceive the finest in the past, and, in the fact of his antagonism toward the present, his solicitude to render these impressions faithfully is unlimited.”

“This conscientiousness was Brahms’s tragedy, the tragedy of all sensitive, aristocratic souls devoted to tradition. [But] moral conscientiousness is not always a virtue; most often it is inborn as one of the characteristics of the honest bourgeois spirit … Not so with Brahms … This is at the basis of that extraordinary sensitiveness which made Brahms’s life the life of Hamlet, made him hesitant and chaste … , for he whom every seemingly innocent action may become the source of new regrets shuts himself in and shuns action … he endeavors to live a blameless life, a life that can remain blameless only if others are not intimately involved in it.”

This brings us to Fou Lei’s observation of the English people: “ Their so-called inhibition in fact indicates the depth and strength of their passionate nature: if not restrained, it will easily burst out and overflow, just as uncontrollable as those of Shakespearean characters.” (Letters to Fou Ts’ong: June 26, 1961)

The deep love for humanity is sometimes represented by a desire to get away from them. The warmth of heart is sometimes embodied in coldness, and spontaneity in discipline. The serene, solemn, and silent universe contains numerous brusque, vulgar and noisy miniatures, if one observes carefully. The sense of beauty, however, always comes at a sudden, to the beholders’ surprise.

Mullova plays the finale of the Brahms concerto with Berliner Philharmoniker under Abbado in Tokyo (1992):

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