(Relatively) Short Takes

By Sedgwick Clark

New York Philharmonic/Christoph von Dohnányi; Paul Lewis, piano, April 10—If you like your Brahms Germanic, the British pianist Paul Lewis is not your cup of schlag. He has been praised for his Schubert and Beethoven performances in small venues hereabouts and on Harmonia Mundi recordings, but this was his first appearance with the Philharmonic in the 2700-seat Avery Fisher Hall. Moments after his first entry in Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 1, PK wrote a demanding note of frustration to me: “Why am I here??? This is precious and stultifying—his playing is twee.”

I know what she was talking about, but I found Lewis’s shaping of notes perceptive and musical (her favorite descriptive word when she likes an artist), and he really tried for a massive sound in all the big moments, even if his tone lacked the weight PK desired. The Philharmonic’s playing was surprisingly scrappy. An impeccably played, comfortably paced, unfussy Schumann Second Symphony after intermission left no doubt where Dohnányi spent his rehearsal time.

Richard Goode, piano, May 1—This was the esteemed American pianist’s first Carnegie Hall recital since retiring last summer from his 14-year co-artistic direction with Mitsuko Uchida of the Marlboro Music School and Festival. The centerpiece of the recital was as satisfying a Schumann Davidsbündlertänze as one could imagine, never allowing the music to seem overstressed and repetitive. Moreover, the composer’s trademark compositional moods of the introverted Eusebius and impetuous Florestan appeared natural rather than contrived.

Goode’s attractive Carnegie Hall program began with four selections from the ten pieces of Janáček’s On the Overgrown Path, Book I. I’ve listened over and over to this inimitable composer’s piano music, hoping to be as entranced as I am with his orchestral and operatic works. I’ll keep trying.

Many years ago, Goode played a duo concert of French music with soprano Dawn Upshaw. I recall his accompaniments and solo performances as being magical. On this occasion, however, his playing of Debussy’s Préludes, Book I, after intermission, was disconcertingly brisk and monochromatic, devoid of mist or mystery. Perhaps he was hewing to the metronome marks, I don’t know, but this wasn’t the Debussy I love.

The Philadelphia Orchestra/Yannick Nézet-Séguin; Lisa Batiashvili, violin, May 2—If ever an orchestra and a piece of music were made for each other, it is the Philadelphians and Barber’s Adagio for Strings. Nézet-Séguin’s tempo was perfect and the players’ incomparable legato breathtaking. I want never to hear this piece by anyone else again.

Bartók’s early two-movement Violin Concerto (1907-08) is as rarely played as Barber’s Adagio is ubiquitous. The Straussian first movement is the most nakedly beautiful music the Hungarian ever composed, a love letter to a young violinist, Stefi Geyer, with whom he was smitten. The relationship was short-lived, writes Paul Griffiths in his insightful program note: “[B]y September 1907, they were already at loggerheads over the question of Bartók’s atheism. In 1911, he salvaged the first movement of the concerto for a new work, Two Portraits, with a different finale, after which the original score remained with Geyer.” It only came to light after her death in 1956, and “was at last heard on May 30, 1958, with Paul Sacher conducting and Hansheinz Schneeberger as soloist, breaking its silence of more than half a century.” Isaac Stern and the Philadelphia under Eugene Ormandy introduced the work in America and made its first recording—an excellent one—in 1961. Ormandy also made a fine recording of the Two Portraits in 1964 with the orchestra’s concertmaster, Anshel Brusilow, as soloist. Lisa Batiashvili’s rapturous performance with this new generation of Philadelphians—half a century later—may be the best of all.

Nézet-Séguin is clearly a Bruckner conductor to watch. His admirably cohesive yet always expressive interpretation of the Austrian composer’s Ninth Symphony never lost sight of the final bars in his broadly paced (64 minutes) performance. I was troubled once again, however, by an occasional coarsening of the strings and uncomfortably glaring brass in loud passages (cf., my February 2 blog regarding the Dvořák Sixth). The sumptuous Philadelphia, of all orchestras that play in Carnegie, has no difficulty filling the hall with glorious sound, as it demonstrated in a downright plush Beethoven “Eroica” three weeks after that unfortunate Dvořák performance. Last month I heard the orchestra on its home ground, Verizon Hall, and it was clear that the string balance has not been solved in all locations, by all conductors. I’m no acoustician, but my guess is that N-S is asking for more sound from the strings, which subliminally causes the brass to blow louder. This may produce good results in Verizon, but not in Carnegie.

Alec Baldwin Hissed at New York Philharmonic Concert

New York’s perennial bad boy Alec Baldwin was hissed last night, May 15, at a New York Philharmonic concert just before Dutch conductor Bernard Haitink walked onstage to conduct Mahler’s Third Symphony. The mild reaction began as soon as he mentioned his name during his usual pre-recorded, pre-concert announcement (“Good evening, this is Alec Baldwin . . .”) requesting Philharmonic audience members to please turn off their cell phones. The award-winning actor, classical-music lover, ardent supporter of the arts, New York Philharmonic board member, and announcer of the orchestra’s radio broadcasts has been in the news this week for riding his bicycle the wrong way on Fifth Avenue and then arguing with a police officer and being arrested.

The concert was excellent.

Looking Forward

My week’s scheduled concerts (8:00 p.m. unless otherwise noted):

5/15 Avery Fisher Hall at 7:30. New York Philharmonic/Bernard Haitink; Bernarda Fink, mezzo; Women of the New York Choral Artists; Brooklyn Youth Chorus. Mahler: Symphony No. 3.

5/16 Carnegie Hall. Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra/Mariss Jansons. John Adams: Slonimsky’s Earbox. R. Strauss: Don Juan. Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique.

5/17 Carnegie Hall. Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra/Mariss Jansons; Mitsuko Uchida, piano. Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 4. Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5.

5/18 Carnegie Hall at 2:00. Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra/Mariss Jansons; Gil Shaham, violin. Ligeti: Atmosphères. Berg: Violin Concerto. Brahms: Symphony No. 2.

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