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A romantic becomes a Romantic

New York
Carnegie Hall
05/08/2004 -  
Johannes Brahms: Piano Concerto # 1; Symphony # 2
Leif Ove Andsnes (piano)
Tonhalle-Orchester Zurich
David Zinman (conductor)

Over time, several different approaches have worked quite well in the performance of the Piano Concerto # 1 of Brahms. There is the granitic, majestic approach that proclaims the piece as the rightful successor to Beethoven. There is the contemplative, intellectual version with stately, unhurried tempi. There is the neo-Baroque treatment, wherein all three movements have approximately the same tempo. There is the Chopin-inspired generous rubato style, emphasizing dramatic pause and heavy inner meaning. There is the unrelentingly Classical approach and its anemic cousin the period instrument realization. For Leif Ove Andsnes, the conception seems closer to the original thought process of the young composer, in love with at least the idea of (if not yet the personage of) Clara Schumann. For this brilliant Norwegian pianist, the concerto is remarkable for its clear, graceful lines, each movement endowed with the spirit of the idealized feminine, even if only the middle adagio is an actual portrait.

In Mr. Andsnes’ more than capable hands, this romanticizing (as opposed to Romanticism) is most passionately accomplished by restraint and by incredibly cogent communication. This reviewer has heard hundreds of versions of this fledgling work but never one so exact and precise, so free of encumbrances. Literally there were no wrong tones proclaimed this night, not even a passing unwanted grace note on a neighboring key. The playing was masterful, the poetry all the more eloquent for its understatement.

Andsnes is a featured artist at Carnegie this season and as such had some input into his choice of orchestra. He could not have made a better one than the seldom heard on this side of the pond Tonhalle-Orchester of Zurich. The group has a long and proud tradition, Brahms himself conducting the first ever program at the opening of the Tonhalle. Under David Zinman, this top flight group matched the microsurgery of the soloist stroke for stroke. This was superb and surprisingly exciting, even though not visceral, music making.

After the interval, the band dazzled with a fabulous Brahms 2, notable for luxurious string sound lovingly phrased by Maestro Zinman to include fountains of beautiful cadenza. Their cello section is the equal of any on the continent and the broad line of the upper strings was magically captivating. Brahms, walking in the mountains with his friend and fellow composer Ignaz Bruell, could not have even imagined such a sumptuous performance. Now that Nature is the subject and not Clara, the embroidery skills of the conductor took center stage. Zinman went about as far as he could without crossing over into sentimentalism. All in all, a very moving performance with a powerful and well balanced ending allowing his fine horn section to participate fully in the ultimate paean of praise. For an atheist, Brahms could really produce a joyful noise.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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