Really Old Europe
Johannes Brahms: Piano Concerto # 2, Symphony # 4
Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphonies Nos. 3 & 6
Emanuel Ax (piano)
Myung-Whun Chung (conductor)
When Giuseppe Sinopoli left the Dresden Staatskapelle, and then us, he should have been proud of his stewardship, as the orchestra tutti sound was one of the most burnished on the planet. This woody and somewhat dark tone is still in evidence today, as Myung-Whun Chung led two reasonably satisfying concerts at Carnegie Hall. Although the second of them was to have been Bruckner under Bernard Haitink, Mr. Chung went at least part of the way along the long and winding road needed to assuage our collective disappointment.
On Wednesday, the program was Brahms and got off to an horrific start. Horn players dread having to begin a concert with a solo, but usually don’t have to worry about the Piano Concerto # 2, as it would normally be placed either after an overture or an obligatory opening modern piece, or, at the very least, held for after the interval. But on this program, the poor fellow was left hung out to dry and perhaps exacted his revenge with a cracked and messy commencement. Emanuel Ax did not let this phase him, however, and played masterfully for the first movement.
Things unraveled a bit in the Allegro appassionato, with Ax and Chung drifting away from each other’s readings as the inordinately hurried interpretation panted to its conclusion. If there was one overall downside to these two concerts, it was Mr. Chung’s need for speed, creating the impression that these old warhorses were just there to be gotten through respectably but not reverently. The finale was also a bit of a muddle.
I was especially impressed, however, with Mr. Ax walking into the orchestra to bring out the first cellist for a solo bow. Certainly he was lovely in the opening solo of the Andante, and it was just plain nice to have him recognized.
Growing up loving everything Brahms ever wrote, it took me a long time to realize that not everyone was such a fan. My companion classified the Dresden treatment of the Symphony # 4 as muddy, the kind of reading that added fuel to the Shavian Wagnerian fire. I acknowledge that the playing was slightly thicker than normal, but attribute this to the exceptional balance of that Cremonese string sound. After all, this is the oldest surviving European orchestra and, in a marvelous way, sounds it.
Day two was devoted to Beethoven, specifically the 6th and 3rd. One of the least attractive aspects of the Brahms 4 had been its jettisoning of the legato lyrical line in favor of a disciplined staccato version of thematic declamation. Thus, the flute in the passacaglia-like finale intoned its solo variation of the main theme with each and every note isolated and sharply defined. This same chiseling effect was apparent in the ”Pastorale”, not, in my judgment as an enhancement. Again the tempi were unnecessarily pushed to their elastic limits. Yes, I know the old saw about Beethoven’s metronome markings, but he was deaf. What did he know?
Finally, the ”Eroica” was also a mixed bag. The swirling and inner repetitiveness of the opening movement strings was not only gorgeous – much more pleasing than any American orchestra, Philadelphia notwithstanding – but tremendously exciting, but the funeral march was routine, not reverential, inconsequential. These performances were competent, but overall not much more than that. I really missed Haitink and Bruckner.
Frederick L. Kirshnit