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Immortal Beloved

New York
Avery Fisher Hall
12/19/2000 -  
Johannes Brahms: Piano Concerto # 1
Robert Schumann: Symphony # 2

Garrick Ohlsson (piano)
New York Philharmonic
Kurt Masur (conductor)

For me, it seemed that Beethoven Week spilled over from Carnegie Hall on Tuesday night as the New York Philharmonic and Garrick Ohlsson presented a superb performance of what could easily be considered the sixth piano concerto of the Bonn master (after all, Hans von Bulow christened the first symphony of Brahms as “Beethoven’s 10th”). The Brahms concerto owes much to the “Emperor” in both spirit and structure and some of these similarities were emphasized in this thoughtful rendition. In addition to Beethoven, the other major presence for the evening who was not listed in the program was Clara Schumann, the inspiration for both of the composers of this concert and whose talents are continually reflected in all graceful performances of the concerto whose second movement is indeed her musical portrait. I will leave it to the more sensational writers to describe in detail the physical, psychological and sensual aspects of this complex menage; suffice it to say that neither Brahms nor Schumann would have flourished on the world stage in their particular ways without the same woman behind them.

Since I relish every opportunity to hear this wonderful pianist, I am long over the shock of such delicate sounds coming from such a burly giant of a man (his entrance side by side with Kurt Masur was reminiscent of the residents of Riesenheim). Mr. Ohlsson is one of the most impressive pianists performing today and he spends considerable time in preparation of a total conception of the work at hand. For the Brahms, he took his cue from the sensitive second movement and presented the entire concerto as a paean of praise to that obscure object of desire, never releasing his Gargantuan powers to play loudly and dramatically, rather ruminating luxuriously on the warmer and more intimate aspects of the piece. Within this loving construct there were, to be sure, imposing crescendi and strong-fingered trills, but overall there was always the gentleness of Clara close to the foreground. Mr. Ohlsson is from the Claudio Arrau school of pianism, using his immense bulk and the force of gravity to expend little apparent effort in the striking of individual notes, sounding rather an organic part of the music as a whole and not making any of us aware of the work involved in producing so beautiful a finished product. As if by magic the music flows, accompanied masterfully by a well-prepared New York Philharmonic. The Central European repertoire is the lifeblood of Herr Masur and not too many alive today are more conversant with its subtleties. For example, I was delighted to hear only the slightest pause between movements two and three, another effective quotation from the Beethoven 5 which most conductors routinely miss. All things considered, this was a very moving performance, although ultimately I would have preferred more flair and passion in the outer movements.

There has been so much mucking about with the symphonies of Schumann over the last 100 years that it is a rare treat to hear one of them performed in its original version. Not just the radical Mahler reorchestrations have colored the performance history of this quartet of masterworks, but rather small amounts of tweaking have become de rigeur since the days of George Szell. Supposedly, these revisions have been designed to flesh out the perceived thin orchestral writing, however they often overstuff the sound to become but an aural equivalent of a Victorian living room. In recent years, the period instrument movement has attempted, with varying degrees of success, to rethink the entire orchestral interpretive process and have now made the original sounds of the old masters more acceptable to modern audiences. I have enough respect for the integrity of Kurt Masur to know that he is not at all concerned about appearing trendy; it is simply a fortuitous circumstance that his steadfast loyalty to the original methods of Schumann’s compositional style now seems thoroughly fresh and modern. His is a cleaner, leaner and meaner Schumann which reflects the conductor’s heritage as the leader of the orchestra of Leipzig (consider that Mendelssohn’s Gewandhaus, which premiered this symphony, consisted at the time of a core group of only 35 musicians). Masur emphasized, in fact, the Mendelssohn connection, performing the Scherzo as if it were a diaphanous part of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I have not heard this orchestra sound so good in many, many years and it will ultimately be this improvement which will remain Masur’s legacy.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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