Elisabeth Söderström and Neil Rosenshein in Dominick Argento's THE ASPERN PAPERS at The Dallas Opera, 1988.
Elisabeth Söderström and Neil Rosenshein in Dominick Argento's THE ASPERN PAPERS at The Dallas Opera, 1988.
January 31, 2017 | Permalink
Above: cellist Paul Watkins
Sunday January 29th, 2017 - Following an unsettling week, it was particularly reassuring to settle into the embracing space of Alice Tully Hall this evening and be serenaded by four estimable musicians in Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center's program of works by Johannes Brahms and Gabriel Fauré.
In 1853, Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms teamed up with Schumann’s student, Albert Dietrich, to write a "welcome home" sonata for violinist/composer Joseph Joachim, whose travels had kept him away from Düsseldorf for several weeks. The music was set around the notes F-A-E, which stood for Joachim’s personal motto, “Frei, aber einsam” ('Free, but lonely'). Dietrich wrote the first movement, with Schumann taking on the second and fourth, leaving Brahms with the third.
Joachim retained the sole copy of the score after performing it; he had the Brahms Scherzo published in 1906, after the composer's death; the full sonata was not published until much later.
The complete 'FAE Sonata' is rarely heard these days, but the Brahms Scherzo has become a popular stand-alone work in the chamber music repertoire. It commences in a brisk, passionate mode which returns following an affettuoso interlude. Tonight, violinist Ani Kavafian and pianist Alessio Bax brought great energy to the opening paragraph, subsiding to a gently rhapsodic state in the calm of the central section before setting up a spirited drive to the finish.
Violist Yura Lee and cellist Paul Watkins then joined Ms. Kavafian and Mr. Bax for the Fauré. A unison string theme opens the quartet, with the entrance of the piano filling out the sonic texture that will keep us enchanted for the next half-hour. Ms. Lee's wonderfully sensitive playing - a hallmark of the evening - meshed lyrically with the sweetness of Ms. Kavafian's violin, the quiet rapture of Mr. Watkins' cello, and the elegant romance of Mr. Bax's phrasing from the Steinway. The music veers briefly to the dramatic before subsiding into a cushioning warmth from viola and cello whilst the violin wafts on high.
Plucking strings and a rolling theme from Mr. Bax open the second movement. Later, the piano comments ironically as the strings try to revive the first movement's main theme in a rather off-kilter manner; the music slows, and then steals away.
In the Adagio third movement, Yura Lee's dreamy playing had a transportive quality; Fauré's student Charles Koechlin has written that "...the viola would have to be invented for this Adagio if it did not already exist...", and Ms. Lee's playing underlined the truth of that notion. Moving forward, violin and piano achieve a lovely blend and the music begins to turn passionate; Fauré manages a balance of intensity and calm in this movement that is quite unique.
A darker and somewhat turbulent mood is created at the start of the quartet's concluding Allegro molto: Ms. Lee and Mr. Watkins sing a deep theme together before a more lilting quality begins to rise. Mr. Bax commences a dance, drawing the string players in with his rhythmic emphasis as the music builds and dances on to an exuberant end.
Following the interval, the performance of the Brahms second quartet was somewhat compromised by the high-pitched sound of a faltering hearing-aid battery. After the quartet's first movement, Ms. Kavafian asked the audience if they were hearing it too, and several people replied in the affirmative. The players took a moment to gather their concentration before proceeding. Annoying as such disruptive sounds are to the audience, it must be doubly difficult to play in such circumstances as the musicians are always listening for one another and the extraneous sound must be particularly jarring. They played on, admirably, and the noise seemed to subside as the performance evolved.
It was in the Brahms quartet that Mr. Bax seized upon the prominence the composer assigned to the piano's role and delighted us with truly gorgeous playing; my notes are full of little stars and exclamation marks, and scrawls of "Bax...Bax...Bax!"
Rhythmic distinctiveness marks the first movement, the four players ever-alert to nuance as cello and violin each have a passage of stepping forward. And then, it's in the Adagio that we get to the heart of the matter: commencing as a lullaby, the piano’s tranquil, song-like theme was an outstanding Bax passage. The string voices murmur deeply and the piano replies; passions ebb and flow, and the strings unite in a brief trio. Ms. Kavafian and Mr. Watkins play in unison, leading to the development of a big song from which the violinist eventually shimmers upward; a hushed coda aptly rounds out this Adagio dream.
A simple song opens the Scherzo, which moves on thru various permutations. A transition to a more energetic passage leads to more animated playing, with a Hungarian lilt. This gypsy colouring extends into the quartet's concluding Allegro, with Ms. Kavafian and Mr. Bax leading the way. The folksy dance motifs, however, are tempered by an unhurried feeling. The music becomes almost gentle at times, before a final build-up.
We emerged into the cold chill of impending February, jolted back to the realities of life. Now - more than ever - we will seek solace in great music, art, poetry, and dance, looking to concert halls and museums as sanctuaries of reason and compassion.
January 30, 2017 | Permalink
Above: pianist Yefim Bronfman
Friday January 27th, 2017 - With Semyon Bychkov on the podium and Yefim Bronfman at the Steinway, we were assured of an exciting evening at The New York Philharmonic. Music by Glinka and Tchaikovsky was played in the grand style under Maestro Bychkov's magical baton, and Mr. Bronfman brought down the house with his splendid account of Tchaikovsky's 2nd piano concerto. Throughout this à la Russe program, visions of the splendours of the Tsarist courts filled the imagination.
The first half of the evening was given over to two scores which inspired George Balanchine to create two choreographic masterworks: Mikhail Glinka's brief Valse-Fantaisie, and the Tchaikovsky concerto. The two ballets unfolded clearly in my mind as the music, so familiar to me from innumerable performances at New York City Ballet, filled Geffen Hall in all its romantic glory.
The infectious, lilting rhythm of the waltz propels the Glinka score; originally written for piano in 1839 and later orchestrated, it is rich in melody and intriguing shifts between major and minor passages, evoking the glamour, chivalry, and mystery of a glittering ball at the Winter Palace. Needless to say, it was sumptuously played under Maestro Bychkov's masterful leadership.
Tchaikovsky's 2nd piano concerto has been a favorite of mine for years, thanks to my great affection for the ballet Balanchine created to it. Written in 1879–1880, the concerto was dedicated to Nikolai Rubinstein; but Rubinstein was never destined to play it, as he died in March 1881. The premiere performance took place in New York City, in November of 1881 with Madeline Schiller as soloist and Theodore Thomas conducted The New York Philharmonic orchestra. The first Russian performance was in Moscow in May 1882, conducted by Anton Rubinstein with Tchaikovsky's pupil, Sergei Taneyev, at the piano.
Tonight, Yefim Bronfman's power and virtuosity enthralled his listeners, who erupted in enthusiastic applause after the concerto's first movement. The eminent pianist could produce thunderous sounds one moment and soft, murmuring phrases the next; this full dynamic spectrum was explored in the monster cadenza, to mesmerizing effect. A word of mention here of some lovely phrases from flautist Robert Langevin and clarinetist Pascual Martinez Fortenza early in the concerto; in fact, all of the wind soloists were very much on their game tonight.
In the Andante, a sense of gentle tenderness filled Bronfman's playing, and his rapport with concertmaster Frank Huang and cellist Carter Brey in the extended passages where they play off one another made me crave an evening of chamber music with these three masters. The concerto sailed on thru the concluding Allegro con fuoco, with its gypsy-dance theme brilliantly set forth by both pianist and orchestra. Maestro Bychkov, who had set all the big, sweeping themes sailing forth grandly into the hall throughout, was particularly delightful in this lively finale. At the end, the audience erupted in a gale of applause and cheers, Mr. Bronfman cordially bringing Mssrs. Huang and Brey forward to share in the ovation.
Throughout this awe-inspiring performance, the choreography of Balanchine danced in my head, and visions of Viktoria Tereshkina, Teresa Reichlen, Faye Arthurs, and Jonathan Stafford sprang up, the music inspiring the memory of their sublime dancing in Mr. B's remarkable setting of this concerto.
After the interval, Maestro Bychkov (above) led an epic performance of Tchaikovsky's 5th symphony. From the burnished beauty of the horn solo near the start, thru the palpable fervor of the Andante cantabile (with its evocation of the SLEEPING BEAUTY Vision Scene), and on thru the Valse, which moves from sway to elegant ebullience, Maestro Bychckov and the artists of the Philharmonic gloried in one Tchaikovskyian treasure after another.
The symphony's finale, right from it's soulful 'Russian' opening theme, seemed to sum up all that had gone before: vivid dancing rhythms from Russian folk music, a march-like tread, a brief interlude. Then the brass call forth, and a tremendous timpani roll heralds a mighty processional. One final pause before a stately repeat of the main theme and a swift, four-chord finish. The audience rightly responded to the Maestro and the musicians with a full-scale standing ovation.
January 28, 2017 | Permalink
Wednesday January 25th, 2017 - I haven't been to a New York City Ballet performance since Jennie Somogyi's farewell in 2015, but I keep running into the dancers and am constantly reminded of how much I miss watching them dance. A few weeks ago, on a whim, I ordered a ticket for tonight's all-Balanchine program, before casting was announced. A domestic surprise - a nice one - called me home early: I missed FOUR TEMPERAMENTS tonight. But I greatly enjoyed seeing ALLEGRO BRILLANTE and the Balanchine SWAN LAKE again.
On entering the theater lobby, I was very happy to see that The Lyre has been restored to a place of honor. Once seated, I watched the musicians warming up while the theater filled slowly. I was not feeling the old sense of anticipation, and I was not sure if my idea of re-connecting with NYCB was making sense: perhaps it's a chapter best left closed?
But then the house lights went down; pianist Susan Walters and conductor Andrew Litton entered the pit for ALLEGRO BRILLANTE and suddenly it felt right to be there. This was my first experience of having Andrew Litton on the podium; the orchestra - apart from a random note or two going astray in SWAN LAKE - played the big Tchaikovsky themes sumptuously. Ms. Walters did a beautiful job with ALLEGRO BRILLANTE; and later in the evening, concertmaster Arturo Delmoni played a ravishing White Swan solo.
Tiler Peck was originally listed for ALLEGRO BRILLANTE, but a pre-curtain announcement informed us that Megan Fairchild would be dancing instead. I was pleased with this announcement, as I'd become quite an admirer of Ms. Fairchild over time; I was curious to see how the Fairchild/Veyette partnership would work under the circumstances, but they are both professionals and carried it off in fine style. Megan's dancing had a lovely lyrical feeling, and I began to realize how very much I have missed her dancing over the past several months.
When the swans made their entry in the Balanchine SWAN LAKE, it really sank in just how long I'd been away: hardly a familiar ballerina in sight. There was a time when I knew every single person in the Company and could scan a large group of corps dancers with my opera glasses and see one friendly face after another. Tonight the girls seemed beautifully anonymous; I wonder who among them might captivate me as Rebecca Krohn and Ashley Laracey had once done, right from their first performances with the Company?
The soloists, Megan LeCrone and Lauren King, both danced very well. Teresa Reichlen and Russell Janzen created a true sense of poetry and ill-fated romance in their partnership. Russell looks the epitome of a romantic hero: his sense of wonder at finding this fragile creature by the lake, and his desire to protect and cherish her were beautifully expressed. Tess was an elegant Swan Queen, terrified at first and only slowly surrendering to the calming effects of Russell's care. The two long-limbed dancers make a striking couple, and their ardent tenderness mirrored the music ideally. They were rapturously applauded, and called out for an extra bow.
In ALLEGRO BRILLANTE, I was particularly impressed by the dancing of the supporting ensemble of eight dancers; Balanchine gives them plenty to do, and they all looked superb. These are dancers I followed closely back in my days as an NYCB regular, and it was really good to see them all again, looking so attractive and dancing with such assurance and grace: Megan Johnson, Meagan Mann, Gretchen Smith, Lydia Wellington, Devin Alberda, Daniel Applebaum, Cameron Dieck, and Aaron Sanz. Watching them, I was keenly aware of what I've been missing.
January 26, 2017 | Permalink
Tuesday January 24th, 2017 - Cellist Alisa Weilerstein, clarinetist Anthony McGill, and pianist Inon Barnatan sharing the Alice Tully Hall stage in a program of piano trios presented by Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. Beloved works by Beethoven and Brahms book-ended the New York premiere of Short Stories for Clarinet, Cello, and Piano by Joseph Hallman. The presence of three such superb artists on the program signaled this as a red-letter event in the current season; I'd been looking forward to this evening for months, and it truly surpassed expectations.
The three artists took the stage, Ms. Weilerstein in a beautiful deep violet gown, and launched the Beethoven Trio for Clarinet, Cello, and Piano, opus 11; it quickly became evident that we were in for a night of exceptional music-making. In this particular work, exuberance and delicacy alternate in perfect measure, and the three players relished both the propulsive passages and - most enticingly - those moments when nuance is all.
One of Beethoven's early masterpieces, this clarinet trio shows the influence of Haydn and Mozart; but once can clearly sense that Beethoven is already finding his own voice. The writing for the three instruments is often conversational, and how lovingly our three musicians this evening spoke to one another.
The opening Allegro con brio is alive with rhythmic delights, including a touch of syncopated witticism. Mr. Barnatan's scintillating agility was a constant attraction, and it was a great pleasure to watch the communication between the three players.
Ms. Weilerstein opened the Adagio with a cello theme; her heartfelt playing took this simple, straight-forward melody to the heights. She and Mr. McGill duetted tenderly, both playing with great subtlety. The music becomes achingly gorgeous.
Good humor abounds in the Theme and variations setting of the finale: drawing on an aria wildly popular at the time, “Pria ch’io l’impegno” (“Before I begin, I must eat”) from Joseph Weigl’s opera L’AMOR MARINARO, Beethoven sets up bravura hurdles for the three musicians, all of them joyously over-leapt by our intrepid trio. Mr. Barnatan revels in the cascading piano passages, peaking in a perfect cadenza which ends with king-sized trills. Meanwhile Ms. Weilerstein and Mr. McGill seem to finish each other's sentences, indulging in an amiable game of "Anything you can play, I can play finer!" Again, the sense of camaraderie, and of the players' anticipation of the sheer pleasure of playing the next phrase, kept the audience visually engaged.
Short Stories, the new Hallman work, is a five-movement trio; it might also be called Scenes from a Relationship. One doesn't, however, need any narrative reference to enjoy this purely as a musical experience, for Mr. Hallman is an excellent craftsman, and a colorist as well. The composer was sitting just a seat away from us; I can only imagine how delighted he must have been to hear his music being played by three such paragons...a veritable dream come true.
The opening movement, the Break-up, gets off to a stuttering start. The cello shivers before going deep and mournful, whilst the clarinet comments on her predicament. Then they switch roles, like a therapist taking over the couch from his patient. They play in unison, and things turn temporarily witty. But the music ends in the depths.
familial memories at a funeral opens with Mr. McGill's clarinet in a whispering, misterioso mood. After briefly perking up, a pensive quality develops with a repeated two-note motif for the piano. The clarinetist's astounding breath-control and his sustained beauty of tone throughout the dynamic range keep the audience mesmerized.
back-and-white noir: hardboiled with a heart of gold is the whimsical title of the third story. It begins agitato, developing an off-kilter rhythm. Mr. Barnatan sweeps up to the high register, while the clarinet and cello play a droopy duo. Ms. Weilerstein then descends to her velvety deep range. The music ebbs and flows, both rhythmically and tonally, as the composer explores the coloristic possibilities of the three instruments.
regret is for the weak is a title that hits home. Mr. Hallman here sets up an eerie, hesitant start. The clarinet percolates briefly, then settles into a very quiet mood whilst the cellist plucks; later, the cello trembles while the piano sounds softly. We seem to be in a moody memory, with Mr. Barnatan drawing forth fleeting surges of melody. Ms. Weilerstein and Mr. McGill sing sadly before the pianist dips down to a punctuating low note.
In the path of the curve, Mr. Barnatan sometimes reaches inside the piano to manipulate the sound. The music here is very quiet, until the clarinet starts warbling. Fluttering and swirling motifs sneak in, then the music seems to run down and the cello again deepens. The piece ends in a sustained quietude.
The only slight reservation I had about Short Stories was that the final movement is perhaps a bit too drawn out; my companion felt the same way. It was unfortunate that, during the work's quiet closing moments, a cellphone went off directly behind us. At the same time, someone in the from row had a violent coughing fit. Such unfortunate timing. Yet despite these distractions, the Short Stories each cast their own spell, and they were spectacularly played.
Following the interval, the Brahms trio (opus 114) found the three artists on the heavenly heights of tonal and technical perfection, their playing so generous and emotive. From Ms. Weilerstein's sublime playing of the yearning opening theme, thru the plaintive entry of Mr. McGill's clarinet and the ever-expressive beauty Mr. Barnatan drew from keyboard, the music took on an impassioned glow. In my scrawled notes, the word "gorgeous' appears over a dozen times.
Mr. McGill's spellbinding playing of the sweetly serene theme that opens the Adagio was a magical passage, taken up by the soulful spirituality of Ms. Weilerstein's cello. The luminous qualities of clarinet and cello are set in high relief by the profound tranquillity evoked by Mr. Barnatan. A long-lined clarinet solo leaves one grasping for adjectives to describe the McGill sound, and his ardent tapering of line. One wanted this meditation by the three players to linger on and on.
A questioning clarinet passage and more marvelous phrasing from Mr. Barnatan set up the waltz-like grace of the Andantino. After a brief diversion, we dance on towards the movement's end; unexpectedly, Brahms tucks in a calming coda to make a lovely finish.
Restraint is cast aside as the trio dig into the concluding Allegro. A tinge of gypsy colour weaves thru this music. Ms. Weilerstein takes up a melody which she passes to Mr. McGill; then they harmonize. Things speed up. "More cello passion!" was my last dashed-off remark; the Brahms sailed on to its joyous conclusion, and the three stellar artists were greeted with immediate shouts of approval. They took a double curtain call, delighting the crowd.
A thought that recurred to me frequently during the evening was: if Mozart had met McGill, Amadeus would have written DIE ZAUBERKLARINETTE.
January 25, 2017 | Permalink
Above: members of The Martha Graham Dance Company at a studio showing of MOSAIC, a new work being created for the Company by choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui; photo by Brigid Pierce. MOSAIC will premiere during the upcoming Graham season at The Joyce, which opens on February 14th. Details and tickets here.
On January 11th, 2017, friends of Graham gathered at the Company's homespace at Westbeth on Bethune Street for a first look at the new Cherkaoui piece. This is my fourth time experiencing this choreographer's work: in 2009, Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet premiered Larbi's ORBO NOVO; in 2010, his SUTRA was performed as part of the White Lights Festival; and this past Summer, HARBOR ME was performed at the Joyce by LA Dance Project.
MOSAIC is danced to a score by Felix Buxton; the choreography has a sultry, swaying, Middle Eastern feel. Without giving away more than that, I will only say the Graham dancers look sexy as ever in this provocative style. It was really great seeing Jason Kittelberger, an iconic dancer with the late, lamented Cedar Lake Company; Jason is Larbi's choreographic assistant for MOSAIC and he introduced the work this evening.
Here are a some images from the showing of MOSAIC; the photographer is Brigid Pierce:
Leslie Andrea Williams, Lorenzo Pagano, Anne Souder, Lloyd Mayor
Anne Souder, Lloyd Mayor
Anne Souder, Lloyd Mayor
In addition to MOSAIC, the repertoire for the upcoming Graham season at The Joyce features a premiere by Annie-B Parsons, recent works by Nacho Duato and Pontus Lidberg, a revival of Martha Graham's PRIMITIVE MYSTERIES, as well as Graham classics MAPLE LEAF RAG, DARK MEADOW SUITE, DIVERSION OF ANGELS, and CLYTEMNESTRA Act II.
I'm hoping to get to a studio rehearsal before the season at The Joyce begins.
January 24, 2017 | Permalink
The great mezzo-soprano Irene Dalis (above) found her most memorable role as The Nurse in Richard Strauss's DIE FRAU OHNE SCHATTEN; I was fortunate enough to have seen her in this opera twice at The Met, and both times she simply dazzled in the fiendishly difficult vocal writing whilst creating a vivid theatrical portrait of this mercurial creature.
The Nurse above all is devoted - to the point of obsession - to her charge: the half-human/half-spirit Empress, daughter of the mysterious and omniscient Keikobad. In the opera's opening scene, the Nurse is visited by Keikobad's messenger. The Empress has been married to the Emperor, a mere mortal, for one year, but as she still does not cast a shadow - the sign of her ability to bear children - Keikobad plans to re-claim her for the spirit world in three days. The Nurse is delighted, as she very much hates living among humans and longs to return to Keikobad's realm.
The Nurse asks what will become of the Emperor after the Empress is taken by her father; "Er wird zu Stein!" says the Messenger: "He will be turned to stone!" This prospect gives the Nurse even greater satisfaction: "He will be turned to stone!" she repeats..."There do I recognize Keikobad, and bow before him!"
January 23, 2017 | Permalink
Above: Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin at Carnegie Hall; performance photo by Steve J Sherman
Thursday January 19th, 2017 - The Staatskapalle Berlin in the first of a series of concerts at Carnegie Hall in which Daniel Barenboim appears both as piano soloist and conductor. Each program in the series pairs a Mozart concerto with a Bruckner symphony. Tonight's was the only performance in the series that I was able to attend, and it proved most valuable as an opportunity to hear not only a great conductor/pianist and orchestra, but also a rare chance to experience Bruckner's first symphony live.
The evening marked, almost to the day, the 60th anniversary of Daniel Barenboim's Carnegie Hall debut; on January 20, 1957, he was the piano soloist on a program conducted by Leopold Stokowski. Over the six decades since that momentous night, Maestro Barenboim has maintained his status as a premiere pianist, and has become one of the great conductors of our time.
My personal memories of Barenboim as pianist and as conductor are especially meaningful to me: in November 2008, he and James Levine were the de luxe pianists for a performance of Brahms' Liebeslieder Waltzes at Weill Hall; the singers were members of the Met Young Artists Program. It was a superbly intimate performance. Shortly after this Liebeslieder evening, Barenboim made his long-awaited debut on the podium at The Met in a splendid series of performances of TRISTAN UND ISOLDE: we went twice, returning for a repeat when Waltraud Meier flew in to rescue one performance and made a striking impression as Isolde.
Above: performance photo by Steve J Sherman
This evening, Maestro Barenboim appeared first as piano soloist for the Mozart Piano Concerto No. 27 in B-flat Major. From the opening bars, my friend Dmitry and I were struck by how absolutely lovely the orchestra sounded in the Carnegie setting. After the interval, when the much larger contingent of players required by the Bruckner took the stage, the sonic effect remained particularly cordial. It's a stellar orchestra, and within moments I was regretting that I hadn't made arrangements to hear them in more concerts from this impressive series.
In 1791, the final year of Mozart's life, the composer was at a low point. Poor health (his own, and his wife's) and financial worries bore down on him, and he felt the Viennese musical public had somewhat lost interest in him. At the time he was composing his last piano concerto, #27, he wrote to his wife: "I can't explain to you how I feel...there's a kind of emptiness which just hurts me: a kind of longing that is never stilled..." His despair shows thru in the 27th concerto, although light still manages to pierce the clouds often enough. First performed on March 4, 1791, it marked Mozart's last public appearance as a piano soloist.
With a smallish ensemble - no trumpets, drums, or clarinets - this concerto feels intimate, even in the spaciousness of Carnegie Hall. This impression was sustained by the marvelous subtlety of Maestro Barenboim's playing, particularly in the cadenzas, where he could fine the tone down to a silken whisper.
In the melody-rich first movement, the orchestra cushioned the piano line to gorgeous effect, with the solo flute and bassoon displaying great finesse. The flautist continued to impress in the Larghetto which follows. Maestro Barenboim's playing here was beautifully sustained and thoughtful, and an atmosphere of tranquility laced with gentle melancholy settled over the Hall. Barenboim's exquisite tapering of the final phrase hung on the air, but an enormous, ill-timed sneeze from an audience member destroyed this magical moment.
Pianist and orchestra bounced back from this unfortunate intrusion for a perfect rendering of the concerto's concluding Allegro; Barenboim's playing here had ample spirit and polish, and the musicians did him proud. This is a somewhat darker finale than Mozart's usually wrote for his concerti, but it does feature the melody of a little song Mozart was working on: "Sehnsucht nach dem Frühling" ("Longing for Spring"). By late 1791, the composer was fighting for his life; he never saw another Spring, dying on December 5th and thus sadly depriving the world of three or four more decades-worth of magnificent music.
Above: performance photo by Steve J Sherman
Anton Bruckner's 1st symphony languished in obscurity for over twenty years. Following a single performance in Linz, Austria, in 1868, it was not heard again until 1891 when it was given in a heavily revised version. Its Carnegie Hall premiere didn't take place - incredibly enough - until 1985, and performances of it remain comparatively rare. After hearing tonight's excellent performance, I feel its neglect is unjustified; in fact, I look forward to hearing it again...the sooner, the better.
Maestro Barenboim's fondness for this music was evident from start to finish, and the Staatskapelle Berlin gave it a performance by turns lush, subtle, and vigorous. How thrilling to hear (and watch) the orchestra's eight double-basses playing in unison; and the timpanist was having a field day - I was mesmerized by him throughout the third and fourth movements.
A march-like cadence sets the opening Allegro on its way; starting almost whimsically, this soon becomes more emphatic. A lull comes as the woodwinds gently introduce a free-flowing violin melody. Suddenly the trombones take control with a mighty fanfare. Distant thunder from the timpani, and the march motif resumes; the movement carries on with an ebb and flow of what feel like climaxes but which subside just short of peaking. Then, after a final rush, we come to an abrupt end. The players' keen response to Barenboim's often understated gestures spoke of the natural affinity the maestro and the musicians have established over the years.
The orchestra's playing of the Adagio was especially moving. This music builds cinematically to a glorious climax, then evaporates into the heavens in an inspired and inspiring coda. Maintaining a perfect balance between the layered voices, Barenboim again showed that this music is in his very blood.
The lively Scherzo is particularly engaging: it has the feel of a tribal dance - by turns throbbing and evocative - reminding me a bit of the well-known Scherzo from the Dvořák 6th. The whirlwind subsides for a gentle interlude before the dance springs up again, stomping on to a quick stop.
Only in the final movement did I feel Bruckner might have been losing his grip somewhat. The music here did not have a cohesive feeling; the structure felt somewhat lacking in tautness, with a couple of walkabouts stemming the flow of the piece. Nevertheless, it was played with utter commitment and a sense of triumph at the close.
Aside from the sneeze, a late seating after the piano concerto's first movement caused an unfortunate break in my concentration. The spectacular performance of the Bruckner helped to set these distractions aside, with Maestro Barenboim and his orchestra basking in a grand ovation at the end of a wonderful evening of music-making.
January 21, 2017 | Permalink