Ein Helden Concert
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
Johannes Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major, Opus 83
Richard Strauss: Ein Heldenleben, Opus 40
Nelson Freire (Pianist), Lorenz Nasturica Herschcowici (Violin)
Mariinsky Orchestra, Valery Gergiev (Conductor)
Last night’s concert of the Mariinsky Orchestra, with two gigantic late 19th Century works and one gigantic 21st Century conductor, did not sit well with the dozens of protestors outside Carnegie Hall.
Their screed was not unreasonable: The conductor Valery Gergiev had signed a letter of cooperation with Putin, not as a citizen but as a musician. So their point–outside of the posters and shouters etc–was that a) Music and politics don’t go together, and b) this was not a question of politics, but of ethics.
Good point. But we have our own problems. And...gulp...while I wouldn’t walk across a picket line, this was different. As Valery Gergiev is different. As is Nelson Freire, whose only shortcoming is that he doesn’t come to New York as frequently as he should. This was a Brahms Second Concerto more memorable than virtually any other performance I’ve heard at Carnegie Hall.
Three-quarters of an hour, with every measure rounded, played less with great dynamics as with breadth, fullness, the Freire tones warm and personally fulfilling. That opening movement was an offering of love, the rippling notes at the beginning, the glistening octaves as this so difficult movement went on.
Mr. Freire has always played his Schumann and Brahms with a loving adoration. When it comes to such a long work (is this the longest piano concerto ever written? Or was it Busoni?), Mr. Freire never wandered, never let a measure go by without caressing the notes. As for Mr. Gergiev, no matter his autocracy with any orchestra, especially his own Mariinsky, he gives way to such an experienced master.
Mr. Freire took the fast movement with an easy flow, and the Andante, like the other movements, without anything even approaching the maudlin It was unforced, it flowed. For the Finale, Mr. Freire danced a graceful dance, paid homage to the Hungarian rhythms, allowing it be his own paean of love to Brahms himself.
No encore was needed, but he played an arrangement of Gluck’s Orpheus dance with an equally lighthearted, delicate joy. Not the usual Rachmaninoff arrangement, but that of Giovanni Sgambati.
The interval was far too long. I wanted–needed–Mr. Gergiev’s Heldenleben. This was the first recording I ever owned, conducted by Strauss’s friend Clemens Krauss, and I’ve loved every performance since.
Mr. Gergiev–in a fit of democratic links with his Mariinsky Orchestra?–eschewed a platform. Standing right on the stage, he started with a zooming lift of the orchestra, and never let that tempo go.
Was this disconcerting? Only for the first two measures. After that, it was obvious that a hero’s life was not to be trivialized. Every measure until the last was taken faster than usual. But miracle of miracles, his Mariinsky offered a clarity, a pellucidity in several sections which one cannot get with smaller orchestras at a slower pace.
One heard every woodwind squeak as the carpers, one could spot each of the trumpets, separate the six percussion players in the war scene. As for the “companion”, Strauss’s panegyric to his apparently awful wife, we had a violinist who didn’t sing that wonderful solo. Lorenz Nasturica Herschcowici played with a tough, hard tone, he seemed to improvise, he almost talked his way through the part, giving a personality to the virago.
As to the 34-year-old Strauss’s ascension to a metaphorical heaven, methinks this is as glorious an ending as Zarathustra’s beginning. True, the horn made some serious bloopers here, but that hardly ruined one of Strauss’s greatest measures in his long history.
Apparently, the Mariinsky gave an encore from Firebird, but I had no desire to hear it. After such a heroic effort by both pianist and conductor, the frantic movements of a mere avian would have extinguished all the previous emotions.