A Brahms Second Piano Concerto To Make You Think

United StatesUnited States Brahms, Brown, Dvořák: Emanuel Ax (piano), Philadelphia Orchestra / Yannick Nézet-Séguin (conductor), Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 1.12.2018. (BJ)

Emmanuel Ax (c) Maurice Jerry Beznos
Emmanuel Ax (c) Maurice Jerry Beznos

Brahms – Piano Concerto No.2 in B flat major, Op.83
Stacey Brown – Perspectives (United States premiere)
Dvořák – Symphony No.7 in D minor, Op.70

Among the many performances of Brahms’s Second Piano Concerto I have heard since the great Solomon gave me my first overwhelming taste of the work about 60 years ago, one that stands out with the highest vividness in my memory was given in Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw some three decades later with Emanuel Ax as soloist and Esa-Pekka Salonen on the podium. The occasion was memorable partly because, with characteristic modest humanity, Ax opted for an encore that was no dazzling exercise in pianistic fireworks but a soft-spoken duet with the Concertgebouw Orchestra’s principal cellist. But aside from that charming touch, the concerto itself had found Ax and Salonen united in a shared commitment to the interpretative tone of Olympian calm and grandeur that I had found in Solomon’s magisterial reading all those years earlier.

In strong and fascinating contrast, the concert now under review presented one of those concerto performances notable for the enlivening difference between the soloist’s and the conductor’s views of the work. Ax played with all the virtues we expect from one of the finest musicians of our time, ranging from honeyed sweetness in the quieter passages to granitic strength when the music demanded it, and enhanced throughout by unfailing clarity of articulation, grace of phrasing, and discretion in the use of the pedal.

Nézet-Séguin, on the other hand, took a strikingly unusual approach to the concerto. In place of the sumptuous sonorities we habitually associate with it, he drew from the orchestra a lean, almost ascetic sound, replacing much of the music’s element of expansive warmth with an often slashing impetus.

Unity of conception is often cited as an argument for concerto performances in which soloist and conductor are one person, and that is a valid argument. But where great music is concerned, no single approach can cover all expressive bases. One of the most stimulating performances I have ever experienced brought a revealing contrast between Murray Perahia’s conception of Mozart’s D-minor Concerto and Riccardo Muti’s very different understanding of it. The way soloist and conductor each had his own basic tempo helped me to focus on two different but mutually illuminating aspects of the work.

My late Uncle Marky is said to have remarked to his wife, ‘You remind me of Marilyn Monroe — you’re so different!’ In life in general, coming to grips with the dominant characteristics of someone’s personality can certainly help us to understand those in another person’s make-up better, and the same principle holds true with music. This concert’s friendly interplay between soloist and conductor brought out for me the line of Brahmsian descent that links the composer’s two piano concertos together in a way I had not previously considered. No.2, with its familiar quality of sumptuous tranquillity, and No.1, which evokes something like the atmosphere of Sturm und Drang, are yet, despite those differences, clearly the work of the same many-faceted man.

Conductor and orchestra did their own part in underlining the fertile reciprocity of these characteristics. The kind of tone that Nézet-Séguin demanded of his players precluded much evidence of the Philadelphians’ fabled richness of sonority. Even the opulence of the strings’ triumphant climax in the middle section of the scherzo seemed to be deliberately downplayed. There is not much opportunity for the brass section to make a major impact in this work, if we discount its very first phrase: Jennifer Montone’s proclamation of that evocative horn solo was assured but not especially poetic, lacking somewhat in the sense of mystery that the composer’s mezzo piano dynamic marking suggests.

Aside from some superb playing by timpanist Angela Zator Nelson, it was thus left to the woodwind choir to emerge as the orchestral heroes of the evening. Jeffrey Khaner’s flute and associate principal bassoonist Mark Gigliotti’s pungently reedy lower register perhaps made the strongest impression, but none of their woodwind colleagues fell below the highest standards of technique and artistry.

The second half of the concert began with the United States premiere of a work that had been added to the program since it was first announced: Perspectives, by the 42-year-old British Columbia native Stacey Brown. Starting with inspiration from a sculpture by the Canadian artist and musician Michael Longtin, the piece is intended, the composer tells us, not to strictly represent the sculpture, but rather to translate ‘an aesthetic experience from one medium to another, from visual to auditory.’ This is not the kind of modern music likely to frighten an ordinary concertgoer. It is written in an idiom partly tonal and freely chromatic; it moves convincingly from one musical idea to the next; it uses the orchestra with a light and frequently imaginative hand; and its more emphatic moments provide satisfying contrast without going to dynamic extremes. If this 11-minute piece is typical of Brown’s music, I look forward to hearing more of it.

Coupling Brahms’s Second Piano Concerto on a program with his protégé Dvořák’s Seventh Symphony was a clever idea: as far as its ninth note, the second subject of the symphony’s first movement shares exactly the melodic shape of the solo cello theme that opens the concerto’s Andante, though without any parallel to that marvelous creation’s subtle rhythmic complexity. In Nézet-Séguin’s hands, the symphony may be said to have brought us home. Though inevitably without the interpretative contrast of keyboard and podium approaches that had made the concerto so interesting, it received a performance fully worthy of what is arguably Dvořák’s greatest symphony (though, as a matter of purely personal taste, I love No.6 even more).

As for that absorbing performance of the Brahms—well, it wasn’t the way I would wish always to hear the work played, but it was irresistibly thought-provoking, and thus cherishable in its own right.

Bernard Jacobson

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