Friday evening's program in the Minnesota Orchestra's current Brahms festival offered two sharply contrasting yet nearly contemporaneous pieces: the pathbreaking D-minor Piano Concerto, Op. 15 (1854-58) -- the crowning work of the composer's early period, and the first indisputable evidence of his genius -- and the backward-looking but hardly unambitious D-major Serenade, Op. 11 (1857-60).
Each score had a complex genesis; the concerto began as a symphony modeled on Beethoven's Ninth, the serenade as an octet or nonet. And on Friday, both were given consummate performances that mocked my store of superlatives.
It's hard to imagine how unsettling this concerto must have been for its early audiences. Conceived on a vast scale -- it's longer than any of Brahms' symphonies -- the piece runs the gamut of emotions from blind fury to wounded tenderness. The opening Maestoso is seismic, elemental, roiling; the not-altogether-serene Adagio, said by Brahms to be a "gentle portrait" of Clara Schumann, seems to probe their intricate intimacy; the ecstasies and affirmations of the concluding Rondo are hard-won and perhaps a bit tentative.
Friday's account of this incendiary music, by soloist Peter Serkin, conductor Osmo Vänskä and a white-hot orchestra, was overwhelming. Serkin -- son of one legendary Brahmsian, pianist Rudolf Serkin, and grandson of another, violinist Adolf Busch -- has this music in his blood; his way with Brahms' rhythms (which can sound square in lesser hands) is unexcelled, as is his ability to knit together the extremes of expansiveness and tension.
A youthful 64, Serkin is his own man: for some minutes before Friday's concert he sat center stage, seemingly unaware of the bustle around him, quietly communing with the piano. This public reverie, rare behavior for a soloist, seemed to bear fruit in the subsequent performance, in passages where the pianist appeared to channel music from another sphere.
Serkin returns to the festival Thursday and Saturday (Jan. 19 and 21) in Brahms' B-flat concerto. We ought to hear much more from him in the future.
The six-movement serenade, often reminiscent of Haydn and Mozart, operates at a temperature lower than the D-minor concerto's. Its chamber-music origins remain audible. But it responded gratefully to Vänskä's high-wattage, unabashedly symphonic treatment, which dealt adroitly with Brahms' sometimes problematic orchestration. The conductor's animation in dancelike passages was especially endearing. And the Adagio was revealed as one of Brahms' great slow movements.