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Brahms Failing to Explode

New York
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
02/03/2024 -  & January 20, 23 (Munich), 31 (Madrid), 2024
Johannes Brahms: Symphony No. 4 in E Minor, Opus 98 – Piano Concerto No. 1 in D Minor, Opus 15
Yefim Bronfman (Piano)
Munich Philharmonic, Zubin Mehta (Conductor Laureate)

Z. Mehta (© Co Merz)

I believe Brahms to be the true Apostle, who will also write ‘Revelations.’
Robert Schumann

I played over the music of that scoundrel Brahms. What a gutless bastard!
Peter Ilych Tchaikovsky

The opening applause at last night’s concert by the Munich Philharmonic was louder and lengthier than most applause at the end of a concert. And for good reason. Zubin Mehta, now three years from his tenth decade is one of the greatest conductors of the 20th Century. Yefim Bronfman, one of the supreme pianists of the Romantic repertory, has appeared at Carnegie Hall for a mere quarter of a century. But every appearance is a festive one. 

Add to this the Munich Philharmonic itself, a mere 130 years old, but one of the great German orchestras, with the Conductor Laureate on the dais.

The occasion should have been a triumphant one. But neither of the Brahms works achieved their uttermost voice. Yes, the First Piano Concerto had its moments, since Mr. Bronfman could almost play it with one hand. But the enthusiasm was missing, the sense of surprise somewhere in the background.
The Fourth Symphony had its moments, yes. Yet it was, at best, a good showpiece for the orchestra. At worst, plodding

Back to Mr. Bronfman. I have heard him play the Brahms several times, each time with a supreme muscularity, held back when necessary but ready to erupt when the music called for it. Each time, though, Mr. Bronfman offered the gift of galvanizing originality.

I could not see Mr. Mehta’s conducting behind the Steinway, so have no idea how he influenced the pianist . Last night, the artist could be active and energetic when the music called for a virtuosic outburst. But the artist seemed to lose interest at times, playing the finale by rote.

Yet, the audience went wild, and the pianist responded with the Chopin Revolutionary encore. Yet in the Brahms, Mr. Bronfman, whose technique is flawless, eschewed what he does best. He missed, in my opinion, the big, warm noble, expressive interpretation which he can accomplish so brilliantly.

For the First Symphony, the conductor (and previously the pianist) entered unexpectedly at Stage Left, so as not to trip over the double basses, also unexpectedly at Stage Right. It was not an energetic walk, and his conducting also lacked the usual Mehta energy.

The conducting gestures were automatic, that beautiful opening of the Fourth–one of the most lyrical openings of any symphony–was played with a sad automata. The subtlety, the shadings, the colors, sounded forced. Instead of this walk-through-the-forest, Mr. Mehta offered a melody coming through a fog. The Munich Phil played beautifully, yet one missed the elegance or the heroism which followed.

The Passacaglia started as a full‑throated song of joy. Yet after the flute solo (played beautifully by Michael Martin Kofler), the tempo became flaccid, only lifting up to the brilliant coda.

In those moments, Mr. Mehta became truly reborn. It swept me along, almost–if not quite–eliminating the preceding near‑flaccidity of the work.

Sunday afternoon, the two performers will offer the Second Piano Concerto and the First Symphony. One’s hopes are that both conductor and pianist will lift up their spirits with a youthful Mehta‑morphosis.

Harry Rolnick



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