LENOX -- Can 21st-century ears, accustomed to the plush sounds of 100-member symphony orchestras, adapt to Brahms' orchestral music played by a chamber ensemble half that size?
Why not? Brahms himself enjoyed a fruitful collaboration with the Meiningen Court Orchestra, one of Germany's best in the late 19th century. Its members numbered about 50, only a few less than the 55 mustered by the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen for its an all-Brahms
program Wednesday night at Tanglewood.
There was no danger of these ambassadors from Bremen -- physically appealing in their enthusiasm -- being inaudible. Under director Paavo Jarvi, they put out a large and not always attractive sound in Ozawa Hall.
The balances and blend might not have been any more uneven than with the old wind instruments in use in Brahms' day. But, perhaps misjudging the hall's ambience and acoustics, Jarvi cultivated a hyperkinetic approach to the "Academic Festival" Overture, Piano Concerto No. 1 and Symphony No. 2.
Tempos and phrasing were alternately pushed and pulled. Big moments not only arrived -- they erupted. The overture's joyful climax in the student song "Gaudeamus igitur" seemed to want to knock indoor listeners right out of the open back door and onto the lawn.
Brahms is subtle in his moves, even when he's being outspoken or dramatic, as in these works. Excitable in performance is less than exciting, though the large audience found excitement in the over-dramatization.
Jarvi seated the strings in the fashion of Brahms' day, with the violin sections divided. This had the virtue of clarifying the string writing and letting the winds through with unusual prominence. Even so, the sound could turn thick or harsh in the louder passages, which Jarvi liked to pounce upon and suddenly throttle back.
In the development section of the symphony's first movement, for example, he whipped up a climax of such Wagnerian proportions that the return of the movement's quiet opening music came more as an afterthought than release. The second-movement adagio, on the other hand, featured some of the evening's most attractive moments in the play of light and shadow. The finale was for those who like their Brahms wild and wooly.
As the soloist in the rough-hewn, granitic concerto, Lars Vogt showed ample muscle but favored the dreamy moments, which sounded almost like music by Brahms' friend and champion Schumann. But Vogt, too, pointed up the contrasts between loud and soft, stormy and dreamy.
Throughout the program, there were highs and there were lows, and there seemed too little to connect them. The orchestra wasn't too small. The conception of the music was too large.