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The Brahms Bursting O’er Head

New York
Avery Fisher Hall
01/17/2008 -  and January 18, 19
Johannes Brahms: Second Piano Concerto
Franz Liszt: From the Cradle to the Grave
Alexander Scriabin: The Poem of Ecstasy

Leif Ove Andsnes (piano)
New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Riccardo Muti (conductor)

Like Stravinsky and Diaghilev, Mozart and Da Ponte, Laurel and Hardy, the fusion of Leif Ove Andsnes and Ricardo Muti last night transcended physics, chemistry, and mere musical partnership. The Brahms Second Piano Concerto, which opened the concert was such an ecstatic experience that the finale, Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy, excellent as it was, seemed a misnomer.

More detail, please. Leif Ove Andsnes is a youngish Norwegian pianist who is able to exude technical brilliance with a sense of grace, almost elegance, in even the most pyrotechnical music. Muti has been, for years, the one conductor who can bring an orchestra outside of its ordinary playing, brilliant as it may be, and give it a new commanding color.

Now add Brahms, a huge concerto yet one with an almost homely intimacy, and the result was overwhelming. From the first rhapsodic notes over the horn solo, he not only worked the lovely phrasing, but also offered a singular color and variation. One phrase might end with a pointed staccato; a repetition would glide into a legato cadence. The simplest right-hand theme would be echoed, with surprising emphasis in the bass.

Most essential, never in years of listening to this work, have I heard each and every note played with such crystal clarity. At times, this seemed almost like a mistake. Andsnes’ vitality in the Allegro appassionato gave the illusion that he was getting behind the orchestra, but this was an aural illusion. Giving full play to every single note in the most energetic passages, one heard far more than the usual physical exercises. Like looking at a close-up of an epic tableau, even the most minor details became both clear and meaningful.

How did Muti react to this overwhelming pianist? The Philharmonic strings never sounded so warm, the great swirls of the accompaniment rose up to frame, contrast and partner the soloist. By the finale, which opened so simply and rose like a summery landscape, both soloist and orchestra gave the most finely spun arboreal climax.

The intermission was that rare occasion when one thought, “Well, no use in staying on. Nothing can duplicate the opening.” That was correct. A short three-movement tone-poem called From the Cradle to the Grave was new to most people, but sounded old and barren of ideas to the old Franz Liszt, who obviously didn’t have much interest. With a single martial theme and lots of fillers, I kept thinking of writers who are paid “by the word”, so have no hesitation in sticking in another adverb, or a two-word preposition where one will do.

But Muti did finish with a bang, Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy. The orchestral works are not as popular as Scriabins’s piano pieces these days. For the latter, a difficult demonic later sonata can be assuaged with an early nocturne which doesn’t sound more advanced that John Field. But the orchestral works are not to everybody’s liking.

With Poem of Ecstasy, one usually goes through the motion of orchestral introduction for that great trumpet clarion call. (Charles Ives wrote exactly the same kind of mystical trumpet in The Unanswered Question, in 1908. the same year of the Scriabin.) But Muti gave a surprise. The orchestra played with such dynamic balance and brilliance, one could have been listening to the delicate instrumentation of a Ravel or Debussy. Yes, when the trumpet did sound, and was accompanied at the end with (wait for it!)eight horns, pipe organ, Russian-style bells, harp, high strings and winds, rocking Avery Fisher Hall. My orchestral score has three fff’s but the ever-generous added a couple more, since the volume was at least fffff. Whether Scriabin is everybody’s cup of vodka, Muti gave new meaning to the word extreme.

CODA: In the mood for another Brahms concerto? The brilliant film There Will Be Blood, which is supposedly almost three hours, seems less than five minutes, and could go on even longer. Brahms’ Violin Concerto plays a pivotal role in the middle of the film, and the first movement is played almost in its entirety under the title. The soloist is Anne- Sophie Mutter, with Von Karajan conducting. Also playing under the film is the Avro Pärt cello/string version of Fratres. Excellent choices, both of them, for an unforgettable movie.

Harry Rolnick



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