Thursday February 16th, 2017 - Beethoven’s 1st piano concerto, with soloist Inon Barnatan (above), and Mahler's 1st symphony were paired in tonight's New York Philharmonic performance under the baton of Manfred Honeck.
Beethoven's 1st piano concerto was used by choreographer Helgi Tomasson in 2000 for his gorgeous ballet PRISM, originally danced by Maria ('Legs') Kowroski and Charles Askegard at New York City Ballet: that's how I fell in love with this particular concerto. Throughout the third movement tonight, I was recalling Benjamin Millepied's virtuoso performance of Tomasson's demanding choreography.
Israeli pianist Inon Barnatan, currently the first Artist-in-Association of the New York Philharmonic, has thrilled me in the past with his playing both with the Philharmonic and in frequent appearances with Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. And I don't use the word 'thrilled' lightly.
Mr. Barnatan's playing of the Beethoven this evening was remarkable as much for its subtlety as for its brio. Maintaining a sense of elegance even in the most whirlwind passages, the pianist had ideal support from Maestro Honeck and the artists of the Philharmonic. The cascading fiorature which sound soon after the soloist's entrance were crystal-clear; with Mr. Barnatan relishing some delicious nuances of phrase along the way, we reached the elaborate cadenza where the pianist demonstrated peerless dexterity, suffusing his technique with a sense of magic.
From the pianissimo opening of the Largo, Mr. Barnatan's control and expressiveness created a lovely sense of reverie. He found an ideal colleague in Pascual Martinez Forteza, whose serenely singing clarinet sustained the atmosphere ideally. Maestro Honeck and the orchestra framed the soloist with playing of refined tenderness; the Largo left us with a warm after-glow.
The concluding Rondo: Allegro is one of the most purely enjoyable finales in all the piano concerto literature. Good humor abounds, the music is expansive, and a jaunty - almost jazzy - minor key foray adds a dash of the unexpected. Mr. Barnatan was at full-sail here, carrying the audience along on an exuberant ride and winning himself a tumult of applause and cheers. He favored us with a brisk and immaculately-played Beethoven encore, and had to bow yet again before the audience would let him go.
Inon Barnatan has, in the past two or three years, become a 'red-letter' artist for me - meaning that his appearances here in New York City will always be key dates in my concert-planning. His Gaspard de la Nuit at CMS last season was a true revelation, and tonight's Beethoven served to re-affirm him as a major force among today's music-makers.
Maestro Honeck (above) returned to the podium following the interval for the Mahler 1st. In the course of the symphony's 50-minute span, the Maestro showed himself to be a marvelous Mahler conductor. The huge orchestra played splendidly for him, and the evening ended with yet another resounding ovation.
From the ultra-soft opening moments of the first symphony, which Mahler described as "...sounds of nature, not music!", this evening's performance drew us in. The offstage trumpet calls seem to issue from a fairy-tale castle deep in a mysterious forest. The Philharmonic's wind soloists - Robert Langevin, Philip Myers, and Liang Wang among them - seized upon prominent moments: Mr. Wang in fact was a key element in our pure enjoyment of the entire symphony. The pace picks up, and a melody from the composer's Wayfarer songs shines forth; the music gets quite grand, the horns opulent, the trumpets ringing out, and so on to a triumphant climax.
The symphony’s second movement, a folkish dance, also finds the horns and trumpets adding to the exuberance. After a false ending, a brief horn transition sends us into a waltzy phase, with winds and strings lilting us along. Then the movement's initial dance theme returns, accelerates, and rushes to a joyful finish.
The solemn timpani signals the 'funeral music' of the third movement; a doleful round on the tune of “Frère Jacques” ensues, but perhaps this is tongue-in-cheek Mahler. Mr. Wang's oboe again lures the ear, and a Wayfarer song is heard before a return to the movement's gloomy opening atmosphere. The unusual intrusion of a brief gypsy-dance motif melts away, and the funeral cortege slowly vanishes into the mist.
Maestro Honeck took only the briefest of pauses before signaling the dramatic start of the finale. A march, a lyrical theme, a romance that grows passionate: Mahler sends everything our way. After several shifts of mood, it begins to feel like the composer is not quite sure how he wants his symphony to end. Various motifs are heard again, and at last Mahler finds his finish with a celebratory hymn, the horn players rising to blaze forth resoundingly.