David Geffen Hall, Lincoln Center
08/15/2017 - & August 16, 2017
Johannes Brahms: Variations on a Theme by Schumann, Op. 23 – Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68
Robert Schumann: Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 54
Kirill Gerstein (piano)
Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra, Louis Langrée (conductor)
K. Gerstein (© Marco Borggreve)
“Between 1840 and 1854 Clara premiered or performed the Piano Concerto, Quintet, Piano Quartet, trios and sonatas for piano and other instruments.”
Nancy B. Reich, Clara Schumann, The Artist and the Woman
Some years ago the Mostly Mozart Festival was a bit of a summer embarrassment. Under Gerard Schwarz the ensemble seemed to stall out, never able to produce a high caliber performance. However, when Louis Langrée came on board, the ship soon sailed into deeper, more challenging waters and, more often than not, produced a fairly acceptable night at the symphony. On Tuesday evening, however, storm clouds gathered and the ship seemed to tilt rather dangerously against the wind.
The modern God Wikipedia says of the Schumann Piano Concerto that “The work premiered in Leipzig on 1 January 1846 with Clara Schumann playing the solo part. Ferdinand Hiller, the work’s dedicatee, conducted.” This is correct as far as it goes, but actually the piece premiered the day before in, of all places, the lobby of a Leipzig hotel. All crowded together, the musicians played this incredibly important and wonderful essay as patrons lounged or scurried about doing their business!
The haunting theme of the first movement is utilized by Edgar G. Ulmer as the character-defining statement of the out of balance and insecure hero of his 1945 film noir Strange Illusion, and it is not a bridge too far to state that this extraordinary melody gives us a glimpse into Schumann’s own troubled psyche. However this orchestral concert began unusually with a work for solo piano, the Variations on a Theme by Schumann by Brahms.
Russian born pianist Kirill Gerstein had a busy day. He performed both these variations and the Schumann concerto in the big hall and then moved to a smaller venue to play an hour recital for the night owls. At the featured concert his performance was found somewhat lacking. Mr. Gerstein suffered from inexact landings, often (over ten times) hitting two notes at the same time, grazing the next note on the keyboard or simply missing his mark altogether. The Brahms piece is not his best effort and, with this rendition, suffered from rampant pedestrianism.
The concerto began briskly enough with the smallish orchestra (3 basses, 7 winds) providing somewhat self-effacing but encouraging background. Gerstein was on his best behavior but lacked the expressiveness to fully outline his heroic part. All together an acceptable effort, although the second and third movements are presented by Schumann without any major gravitas, perhaps a sign of his variable powers of concentration.
After intermission Maestro Langrée came out in front of full orchestra and did something so horrible as to give this reviewer chills as he types this sad missive: HE GRABBED A MICROPHONE! Every performer seems to feel the need to lecture his flock like a politician in a primary. Maestro, whose English is somewhat difficult to penetrate, proceeded to spout the apparently required jokes and presented a little historical background about Brahms and his average orchestral size. Unnecessary and amateurish, how long before we have a designated celebrity fulfilling this “speaker role”, talking down to the audience as if they were elementary school students. Orchestral administrators who are (justifiably) worried about shrinking attendance should jettison these clownish intervals as soon as possible! The following performance was somewhat spotty and did not leave one feeling especially edified. Hopefully the festival is not slipping down to its original sloppy roots.
Brahms and Schumann were close friends after growing out of their master and student bond (some might say bondage). At least they always had Clara between them in any way that one might speculate.