Brahms as seen through the eyes of a very young man
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
Johannes Brahms: Piano Concerto No.1 in D Minor, op.15
Béla Bartók: Concerto for Orchestra, Sz.116
Igor Levit (piano)
New York Philharmonic, Jaap van Zweden (conductor)
J. van Zweden, I. Levit (© Chris Lee)
In a recent review, I noticed how much a concert hall may affect the sound of the orchestra. At that time I was referring to the Warsaw Philharmonic, a leading Polish orchestra whose sound I know very well from the countless encounters at their home, Philharmonic Hall in Warsaw. I happened to encounter their American tour (well, their tour in Southern Florida, as it was shortened because of the dreaded Covid restrictions) and hear them in the excellent acoustic of Miami’s Adrienne Arsht Center and was surprised how wonderfully warm the sound of this ensemble became.
Last Friday, at Carnegie Hall, I had a similar experience listening to another orchestra, whose sound I know well for decades and again I noticed how much they gained by performing in the acoustically wonderful Isaac Stern Auditorium. That was particularly noticeable in the soloistic parts of Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra performed in the second part of the program.
In the first part we heard Brahms’s Piano Concerto No.1 and the soloist was Russian-German pianist Igor Levit, who was making his NY Philharmonic debut with this performance. Levit is not a stranger to Carnegie Hall, where he performed just a few months back in a very successful recital. He is an excellent and yet controversial performer: one may disagree with his interpretations of the classic canon, yet rarely can one dismiss or disrespect his often visionary renditions. I also suspect that his persuasive powers for his rather uncommon approach to the Brahms score was probably not what Maestro van Zweden would have otherwise imagined. The YouTube performance by the same pianist some three years ago features, for example, the same hasty and often turbulent approach which we witnessed at Carnegie: obviously that’s the way Levit hears this youthful work and it is refreshing to be confronted with a completely disparate interpretation which, after all, might be what Brahms had in mind.
The reason for the fast opening tempo that eschews the composer’s indication Maestoso, might be related to the unusually complicated gestation period of that brash, fierce score that was at first received with disdain and harsh criticism. Similar to the famed Piano Quintet, the D Minor Concerto was initially conceived as a two‑piano sonata. There were many intricate details on how the sonata from 1854 finally, after many trials and revisions, became a piano concerto some three years later and was finally performed by the 26‑year‑old composer in 1859. After some problems with publishing the concerto, Brahms didn’t stop working on it and in 1864 sent his publisher another version of it, this time for two pianos. Interestingly, the composer requested his publisher Rieter‑Biederman to not include his name as the author of that transcription. But according to the late Peter Serkin, who was not only a great pianist but also an impressive scholar, that four‑hand version of the Piano Concerto No.1 bears the answer to finding the proper tempo as it gives us metronome markings that indicate quite a brisk pace.
So here it is possible that Levit’s persistence in adopting this unusually vigorous tempo was based after all on scholarship rather than a whim. That, by the way, didn’t faze the orchestra players, especially the excellent French horns, which had a great night of amazing accuracy and intonation. Now, what was more questionable, though not all that abnormal, was quite frequent pulse fluctuations which were NOT indicated in the score, yet they became a sort of unwritten tradition. I am never convinced when an indication of mere poco piů moderato (a little more moderate) becomes a sudden reduction of speed to 10 mph. Perhaps it is my pet peeve but I strongly believe that when the composer already gives us the slower note values, we as musicians don’t need to further help him, but obviously, not many performers share my point of view. So other than those two instances in the first movement, it was a sweeping version, full of vitality and drive and for once we heard that passionate music through the prism of a 25‑year‑old tormented composer rather than 85‑year‑old pianist, his mood autumnal and ruminative, and one foot (figuratively) already in the other realm. So I was glad to hear the soloist who avoids sentimentality and prefers a long‑phrase approach.
I felt that there must have been some strife between our soloist and conductor in the Adagio somber drama with an air of sublime resignation, for there was again back‑and‑forth with tempo pulling and pushing, though van Zweden tried to make the gear changes as unnoticeable as possible. But still, there was plenty of affection, expressiveness and intensely, beautifully sung lines both in the piano part and in the warm underpinning of the orchestra. Brahms didn’t hide the fact that this movement, which in the manuscript carried the words “Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini”, was also a discreet love confession for Clara Wieck. “I am also painting a lovely portrait of you: it is to be the adagio,” he wrote to her. And our performers came quite close to that declaration.
The Finale, marked Rondo: Allegro non troppo, was full of fire and vigor and again showed Levit’s command of keyboard as if that was not sufficiently evident in the first two movements.
There was an encore from Mr. Levit: instead of one of the solo Brahms pieces or even choral preludes that he recently featured in his recitals and on recording, he settled for the solemn and songful Bach chorale Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland in the Ferrucio Busoni transcription.
The second half of the program was devoted to another concerto, this time for the whole orchestra and that was, as intended, a showpiece for the New York Philharmonic and their Music Director; both parties were in excellent form. Similar to some late Schubert masterpieces written by the dying composer, this arguably greatest of Bartók’s scores was also written by a composer who had very little time ahead of him when the work was commissioned by the conductor Serge Koussevitzky; Bartók was then very ill and nearly bankrupt. The work was created in the summer and early autumn of 1943 in Upstate New York. After completing the score to the Concerto for Orchestra, Bartók returned to the city: at that time he was residing on West 57 Street, barely 200 meters from Carnegie Hall.
The Concerto for Orchestra is not only a commanding score, a first time attempt to treat the solo instruments or groups in concertante mode and in a virtuoso manner, but also incredibly inventive, showing strong influences of classical style in his treatment of thematic development. This tightly led, perhaps a bit straight, performance featured a really superlative, virtuoso playing by this ensemble. I imagine that, as in old days, when NY Phil on rare occasions would appear at Carnegie Hall, this time it was also hard to leave the stage with the belief that their new home, now under construction, may still be a far cry from those wonderful, warm, vibrant acoustics that Carnegie has to offer.