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Big Ideas in Small Packages

New York
Carnegie Hall
04/20/2002 -  
David Diamond: Rounds
Robert Schumann: Piano Concerto
Johannes Brahms: Serenade # 1

Helene Grimaud (piano)

The Piano Concerto of Robert Schumann is less remarkable for what it is than for what it is not. Perhaps embittered by the hand injury that would prevent him from ever performing in public at the keyboard, Schumann the critic campaigned violently against the 19th century concept of the virtuoso, refusing to elevate pianistic flamboyance to the level of serious art music. Its flashy introductory measures notwithstanding, the resulting work for soloist and small orchestra is as equally unlike the popular music of Chopin, Thalberg or Liszt as it is the traditional concerti of Mozart or Beethoven. The form of this problem piece is bizarre, even for Schumann. The first movement is constructed like a complete, four movement symphonic composition (I once read a convincing argument that proposed that it is the model for Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony # 1), while the additional two sections are much smaller, almost vestigial, appendages. Not surprisingly, the composer originally conceived the first movement as a stand alone fantasia and seems to have added the much weaker intermezzo simply as a musical necessity between his already finished piece and the inventive variant on its ubiquitous, if infectious, main theme that is the concerto’s finale. The entire work is based on only this one kernel of melodic thought, the second and third movements adding little to its intellectual or emotional exposition or expansion. It is significant to note that this concerto, along with the Tchaikovsky 1, was one of the very last that was performed with the expectation of applause after the first movement, a practice which continued well into the 1940’s.

Certainly, Schumann’s output of concerti has been overlooked by modern programmers. The Violin Concerto, arguably the best of the lot, is truly a rarity, especially since the demise of Yehudi Menuhin. The Concertstueck for Four Horns and Orchestra has been relegated to the status of a novelty act. The Cello Concerto is performed by soloists starved for repertoire and can be very convincing in an aristocratic reading such as the one that Lynn Harrell presented with the New York Phil earlier this season. The lovely Introduction and Allegro Appassionato for Piano and Orchestra isn’t on anyone’s radar screen any longer. All that remains on the standard menu is this quirky piece surviving on, as Glenn Gould used to say about the Beethoven Violin Concerto, a lot of guts and one good tune.

To modern ears, the encrusting of such a large carat diamond as this haunting melody (fans of B movies might recognize it as the leitmotif of Edgar Ulmer’s Freudian thriller “Strange Illusion”) in such a diminutive sonic setting might sound disproportionate, but it was the norm in those days to perform such eloquence with small instrumental forces. This particular piece was actually tried out by Clara at a hotel in Dresden approximately a month before its official premiere at the Gewandhaus on New Year’s Day of 1846. Mendelssohn’s orchestra (150 years ahead of his time, he was away on one of his many jaunts and so left this important premiere in the hands of Niels Gade) was less than 35 pieces and thus a performance of this work by the lean and leaderless ensemble Orpheus conforms nicely to historically accurate performance practice (as does the rendition of the accompanying Brahms Serenade).

Orpheus itself may also be considered less remarkable for what it is than for what it is not. Conductorless in an age of the deification of celebrity, it survives rather on solid, time-honored musical principles of unified communication and egalitarianism. The Vienna Philharmonic may indeed be a self-governing body, but at every performance they are still only a set of tools (albeit pearl-handled ones) for a particular craftsman. The members of Orpheus are rather the decision makers, achieving a happy medium between orchestral servitude and chamber music democracy. Uncompromising in their community approach, they rotate concertmasters for every piece and take downbeats from other quarters besides the first violin chair. The strings alone performed the David Diamond, a tight set of circular games perhaps more clever than profound, but engineered this night with a thorough sense of precision and sparkling tone.

It was extremely refreshing to see Ms. Grimaud enter the proceedings as just another of the musicians, forgoing the star turn in favor of a sign of solidarity. Her Schumann is light and airy, her touch gentle or steely as appropriate. Although not the most accurate of readings, it towered above the Argerich of last week (although, to be fair, Martha had to compete with an orchestra almost trebled in size) with all hints of ponderousness and most of self-serving virtuosity banished. Several times, the melody was surprisingly subsumed in the concurrent arpeggios, but this pianist’s gorgeously flowing style allowed for some liberties of enunciation (as if we didn’t hear this theme often enough anyway). There were a few fans who, very sophisticatedly I’m sure, paid homage to the pre-war tradition and attempted to applaud after the first movement, but the gesture was stillborn. Altogether a breath of fresh air for an old warhorse and much closer to the original conception of the husband and the execution of the wife than more modern performances infected with elephantiasis not only of the instrumental battalions but also of the ego of the soloist.

In the Brahms, it was notable how much could be achieved with one horn here, two basses there. The individual lines were crisp and clean, easy to be heard in this pristine rendition. The adagio was especially well constructed and lovingly built to that stunning and sunny modulation that stamps this bauble with the mark of genius. I would have wished for a little more spirit in the performance as a whole, however, and couldn’t help thinking that the addition of (dare I say it?) a conductor might have enlivened matters just a tad. But perhaps the inverse ratio of artistic freedom (not to mention salary cap) to traditional orchestral methods did not allow for such an innovation. Let’s not meddle in the private affairs of Orpheus; if we just leave the players alone, everything will be fine.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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