In Brahms, a Welcome Change from Showy-But-Vapid

United StatesUnited States Brahms, Schumann: Paul Lewis (piano), New York Philharmonic, Christoph von Dohnányi (conductor), Avery Fisher Hall, New York City, 12.4.14 (DA)

Brahms: Piano Concerto No.1 in D Minor, Op.15
Schumann: Symphony No.2 in C Major, Op.61

This concert promised much, and delivered more. In Christoph von Dohnányi, Paul Lewis seems to have found the perfect intellectual partner. Together with the New York Philharmonic, they produced a very thoughtful, against-the-grain performance of Brahms’s first concerto.

As I wrote elsewhere, reviewing his recital at Carnegie Hall two weeks ago, Lewis has always had a tendency to classicize works, something that pays dividends in some of his performances (Liszt, for example), and constrains others (his Schumann especially). Would that work in this stormiest of Romantic concertos? Potentially a greater problem, as he noted in a program interview, lay in the fact that Lewis has never produced a particularly grand sound from his Steinways. Could he cope with the tumult to his left, especially in a hall as unforgiving as Avery Fisher?

A resounding yes to both, and on both accounts Lewis was critically helped by Dohnányi. He certainly did not hold the Philharmonic’s strings back, but through some especially fine attention to balances he adjusted the sound picture in favor of the woodwinds. This not only allowed some excellent playing in rarely heard details to come through, particularly in a reflective and unassuming reading of the slow movement, but meant that Lewis, although still stretched, did not have to push too hard. Lewis scaled up his sound without resorting at any point to crude pummelling, even if the extra physical effort was visually evident to anyone familiar with his usual playing. More important, his usual nuance of touch endured. The combined effect was one of unusual solidity.

That, too, was the result of Lewis and Dohnányi’s joint concentration on structure. Rarely before, live or on a recording, have I heard the development of this score revealed quite so unashamedly. And why not? If this is Brahms following on from Beethoven (more so than Schumann), he is following on far more from early and mid-period Beethoven than late. So Dohnányi was insistent right from the (rather slow) orchestral opening on hearing every part of the score, a remarkable success in this hall and in one of Brahms’s claggier scores. Others might have found more at stake, whether on the podium or the piano stool, but what a welcome change this made from yet another showy but vapid performance.

And there was another layer, too: in all three movements Lewis and Dohnányi seemed steadily to free this Brahms from classical shackles, giving greater attention to flights of fancy. Take, for instance, one of the few moments in the first movement when the pianist is heard alone. We hear it twice, in exposition and recapitulation. First time around, Lewis treated it as latter-day Haydn. Second time, foreshadowings of Liszt were unmistakeable. Or the finale’s fugue, an unnecessary addition on Brahms’s part, is often tacked on in lesser performances, but here was rendered inevitable. Each return of the rondo’s main material became freer. This was Brahms as process, firm but never rigid.

Dohnányi has always been a superb conductor of the early Romantics, and his Mendelssohn and Schumann recordings with the Vienna Philharmonic and the Cleveland Orchestra (respectively) remain highly recommended. Much warmer than the Brahms, this Schumann Second was a constant reminder of what a benevolent smile and a gentle attention to detail can bring out in a decent orchestra. Even if Schumann’s reputation as an orchestrator is now rather better than it once was, the challenge remains to make sense of his textures. No problem for Dohnányi, that, as the same talent for balance that had been on show in the Brahms made itself felt again.

And so this Schumann proved utterly convincing. Granitic at times, the first movement gathered momentum superbly, the pacing just excitable enough to make up for a slight paucity of material. There was plenty of character to the scherzo, which had a lightness more associated with Mendelssohn than this composer, and spun along amiably but not without darker undercurrents. The slow movement never sagged, as it can, and didn’t take on too much of an elegiac character. And the finale buzzed along, a welcome release from an evening of unhurried tempi, with fizzy internal lines drawn out from the second violins and the violas at the service of an emphatic drive to the close.

David Allen

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