The wonderful thing about "Brahms and Beyond," introduced by pianist Emanuel Ax and mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter on Thursday night at Zellerbach Hall at UC Berkeley, was the way it simultaneously took a nostalgic look back and offered a tantalizing hint of things to come.

The first of two recitals conceived by Ax and presented by Cal Performances, the series is designed to showcase the music of Brahms while drawing connections to the composers of our time.

With Ax and von Otter performing selections from Brahms' lieder, folk song settings and solo piano works alongside new music by Nico Muhly and Missy Mazzoli, Thursday's performance suggested just how close those connections can be -- and how bracingly youthful Brahms' music can sound.

We don't usually think of Brahms in those terms -- he's one of the iconic Three B's, after all -- but there was his music, sharing a program with his contemporary counterparts and sounding none the worse for it.

In Thursday's program, Ax was the driving force. The pianist is one of the world's finest, and he played each piece with insight and consummate flair.

He and von Otter are well-matched: a Polish-American pianist and a Swedish mezzo, clearly of one mind in their approach to this composer. Brahms' songs made up the bulk of the program, and they sounded uncommonly vibrant; in the opening selection, "Erlaube mir, feins Mädchen" (Permit me, sweet maiden), von Otter sang with yearning tone and sweet high notes; Ax supplied soft, tender accompaniment. Von Otter continued to sing with distinction; "Sommerabend" (Summer evening), also in the first half, was quintessential Brahms -- an incandescent portrait of nature, delivered with a fine mixture of mystery and languid beauty.


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The program acquired depth and stature as it progressed; the high point came in the second half, with Brahms' "Ruhe, Süssliebchen, im Schatten" (Rest, my love, in the shade.) Here, von Otter's radiant vocalism and Ax's crystalline piano part melded in a rapturous performance.

Ax also excelled in the program's solo piano works. His playing in Brahms' Intermezzo in B-flat minor, and Romanze in F major, both in the second half, was particularly fine -- technically brilliant, and unusually clear-eyed. He doesn't indulge in Romantic excess, and his performances are all the more touching for the restraint.

In between, Mazzoli's "Bolts of Loving Thunder" and Muhly's "So Many Things" paid tribute to Brahms in intriguing ways (both were co-commissioned by Cal Performances, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Carnegie Hall and Symphony Center Presents, Chicago; both made their Bay Area premieres on this program.) Each score incorporates one of Brahms' most famous musical mottoes, the F-A-F ("Free, but happy") theme that appears in his Symphony No. 3. In Mazzoli's "Bolts," it surfaces slowly, making itself heard amid a dense wall of sound. Ax gave it a turbulent, intensely focused performance, and the composer came onstage to take a well-deserved bow.

Yet it was Muhly's "So Many Things" that made the evening's biggest impression. The composer, whose opera "Two Boys" premiered at the Metropolitan Opera earlier this season, incorporates texts by Joyce Carol Oates and Constantine Cavafy (translated by Daniel Mendelsohn) in this three-movement song cycle. The allusions to Brahms are clear, in the use of the F-A-F motif, the broad harmonies, the rippling piano parts.

At the same time, there's something beautifully poised and light-refracting -- in other words, starkly modern -- about the score that sets it apart. Ax imparted an air of authority to the piano part, and von Otter sang with luster.

And that's just the beginning of "Brahms and Beyond." On Feb. 26, Ax returns to Zellerbach Hall with his frequent partner, cellist Yo-Yo Ma. The program includes new works by Brett Dean -- and, of course, more music by Brahms.