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When Stravinsky meets Brahms in Toronto … the World listens

Roy Thomson Hall
06/13/2007 -  and 06/14/2007*
Johannes Brahms : Piano Concerto No.2 in B Flat Major Op.83
Igor Stravinsky : The Rite of Spring

Hélène Grimaud (piano)
Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Peter Oundjian (conductor)

Brahms’s Piano Concerto No.2 is truly the emperor of its kingdom. It is an epic both in depth and breathe, yet never portentous. It enters with grandeur, but never flamboyance; it marks as a landmark in piano history, surpassing the darkly tragic pages of its predecessor the D Minor Concerto. Like the First, the Second combines the powerfully colloquial virtuosity on Brahms’ favorite instrument, paired with intricate symphonic musical dialogue as early as the first page of the score.

Similar to the Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto featured last week by the Toronto Symphony, the Brahms’s B-Flat Concerto is yet another unique example of its genre – a four movement magnum opus with omitted cadenzas in the traditional sense. In the next ~45mins, Brahms’s music is to be the source of an intimate exploration into heroism and lyricism, with a finale where an audience would transpire in bliss after a melodically victorious Rondo. This concerto is, in short, a lifetime’s history of the virtuoso and the poet, the classicist and the romantic. And, to this end, we have the charms to hear Ms. Hélène Grimaud, the French pianist who needs no introduction as an advocate of Romantic repertory ranging from Brahms to Rachmaninoff to those contemporaries of our time as Arvo Pärt.

Once again, keeping in spirit with the “Brahms-Stravinsky Festival,” Maestro Peter Oundjian opens the concert with a quick introduction, reminding the audience that while both Brahms and Stravinsky have written the featured works tonight using ideas from the past, each of them has created a medium that trespasses light-years ahead. Noteworthy for his humorous whims, Brahms was once to have sarcastically said “I have written a tiny, tiny piano concerto with a tiny, tiny wisp of a scherzo,” and as Maestro Oundjian correctly notes, this “tiny” concerto turns out to be one of the largest piano concerti ever written. With close to 85% of the hall filled, all of us in the audience is about to experience the “intimately powerful.”

The magical horn-call opening of the first movement Allegro is one of those highly Romantic hallmarks that seem to warmly invite all listeners, the soloist and the players alike, into a performance already underway. One certainly feels relieved, and kudos to the horn solo, one could only imagine how much practice sessions must have gone through to polish such an important horn-call of blessing. The passionate, yet expansive movement opens with a distant reminiscence to the opening motif from Schubert’s C Major “Great” Symphony, with clear Classical sonata form structures, paying tribute to Brahms’s greatest idol, Beethoven. For the most part, Brahms has written a piano part reflective of his very personal, but demanding style, shunning to the traditional pianistic virtuosity so typical of great Franz Liszt. These include the many passages of massive chordal textures, unusually wide-spread movements of the hands spanning across registers, intertwined with rapid and complicated independent rhythms, projected by the traditional octave runs that is complemented by Brahms’s particular fondness for doubling lines with thirds or sixths. Ironically, with Ms. Grimaud’s experience in the composer’s work, one would have expected an inspiring and clean interpretation. But, perhaps of this work’s monstrous magnitude and the scope of technical and musical challenges that almost seem narcissistic, even the talents as Ms. Grimaud’s could fail as early as the exposition section – with a wide array of missing notes from running massages, blurred over-pedaling that seemed to foreshadow what turns out to be an ill-fated memory lapse, glaringly obvious as a musical “hiccup” in the middle of a busy movement.

The second movement Scherzo is a new experimentation on the concerto stage for Brahms, adopting a beginning using borrowed material from his very own Serenade Op.11. The second idea brings forth to the spirit of a waltz: though, here, the exchange between the soloist and the orchestra is unusually slowed and echoed by over-pedaling once again, apparently a common accord between the soloist and the conductor. The interpretative line which Ms. Grimaud imposes upon the movement lacked a fragrance of nobility, as one would expect in the music coming from a figure like Brahms’s. One hears the tiredness efforts Ms. Grimaud attempts to carry a tranquil colloquium between her piano line and the Orchestra.

In the third movement Adagio, we hear a cello very much in relief and proclamation of solemnity, while the double bass players decorate with bass notes pizzicati. Kudos once again on the fine players we have on the low strings! Brahms has taken this idea of a lyric cello solo from Clara Schumann’s Piano Concerto, and consequently, this beautiful, warm-loving theme is “recycled” in one of Brahms’s deeply moving songs “Immer leiser wird mein Schlummer” (Op.105 No.2). If one was to analyze this movement on a music-dissecting microscope, one may perhaps notice the close resemblance to the Adagio from Beethoven’s E-Flat “Emperor” Concerto, just very much like its predecessor horn-call-piano exchange with the Allegro opening from the Emperor. Like Beethoven in the Emperor, Brahms envisions his pianist to be an inspirational and illuminating one, able to capture the delicate piano sonorities strikingly in contrast to those from the same instrument heard in the previous two movements. In the middle of the movement, we hear Ms. Grimaud’s attempt to bring out a lucrative and percussive line, as she tries to capture a transformative power. She has, indeed, for a moment, but eventually falls behind in exhaust of musician’s fuel.

The Allegretto, almost too serene, intends towards a more gracious dance-like finale – one without mystery, without being apocalyptic or tragic, without melancholy or regrets of the impassionated. This is Brahms purely in the spirits of the Hungarian Dances (after all, “Hungarian” moments are never in scarcity in this work), or perhaps even of the Waltzes (Op.39). Hence, this movement is often referred as “the Apotheosis of the Hungarian Dance.” All the sections are pervaded with a brilliant sense of light-heartedness, and flowing through one’s ear-drums is a soft, almost Jugendstil Brahms. Regrettably, we clearly do not know as yet how Ms. Grimaud would interpret the Concerto in her later concertizing career, though at this point of her musicianship development, the Hungarian element has most definitely missed her by a mile! Her understanding of Brahms is pointing on the right path, and so it seems from her live performances and recorded legacy thus far, but to be an insightful and complete interpreter of this œuvre, the author believes she should revisit this Concerto only in later years after surveying the wealth of important compositions Brahms has left behind for pianists as stepping-stones to this magnum opus. A great place to start would have been Brahms’ very own miniature Hungarian Dances! Why rush for Mount Olympus when you haven’t even met the Gods?

So, what would have been a tour de force performance, as a continuum of the tradition left behind to Ms. Grimaud’s début in 1999 with the Brahms’ First, turned out only to be somewhat a disappointment. There were moments, though, when flames would have flickered along with Ms. Grimaud. The problem comes not from a lack of practice, nor a lack of rehearsals, since the Toronto Symphony under Maestro Oundjian have only been attentive and colorful all along, well-articulated to the score. In fact, Ms. Grimaud is lacking the physique and the stamina, so it seems tonight, as she stumbles and trips over heavy roadblocks throughout the piece. Running passages turn out to be discounted slipping passages, while top lines fail to project when the music becomes dense and overwhelming. But most disturbing is the fact that her performance fails to bring out the sonorities and dance-like elements when needed; there is no narrative being told, most clearly as a result of the over-pedaling that blurs her voice from the first to the fourth movements. It makes one question why Ms. Grimaud has chosen to include this monstrous piece into her repertory at this early stage of her concretizing career, though Brahms has certainly marked a special chapter in her growing discography. Is it just because she made a successful début triumph playing the Brahms’ First nearly a decade ago, and expects that the Second would equally mark her victorious over this attentive crowd? Nonetheless, together with Maestro Oundjian, Ms. Grimaud will join forces again in New York performing the Brahms at the upcoming opening night of the Caramoor International Summer Festival later this month. May New Yorkers and fellow American attendees of this crowd be blessed with better fortune from the pair.

Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring is a choreography devoted to spring, as Maestro Oundjian introduces the work. It is a conjuring up to barbaric rites, a score bursting out loud in dynamo with disguised romanticism, intoxicated with rhythm and color, certainly a revolutionary masterpiece which has broadened the concept of esthetic values and widen the musical limits on each player’s role in the orchestra. The Rite, as one fully appreciates tonight coming off an explosive and coherent group of Toronto Symphony Orchestra players, demonstrates that the feeling of beauty is not necessary the sole prerogative of refinement and subtlety. One of the major aims Stravinsky had in this composition is to make players and listeners perceive the powerful rhythm and fantastical dynamism, while inviting moments of calamity in the form of a spiritual rite of evocation.

Once again, this is a test piece that challenges the ability of the conductor to teach well an orchestra how to overcome its inherent difficulties – from dynamic control to complex rhythmic delicacies. One can easily be enthralled by the power and enthusiasm which drives Peter Oundjian at times in compositions such as The Rite. First, by the message emitting off his body-language, always concentrated and expressive; second, his communication with individual players, a key-point to a successful performance where at times finger-picking could not be avoided; thirdly, his sense of balance and direction benefited from his hearing as a chamber musician by trade.

And, so it seems under the batonless Maestro Oundjian, a consensus has reached by the end of the ~35min ritual Rite, that all the bangs and clangs and gongs are deserving of three cheering ovations on stage. Today, it is no paradox to say that The Rite is terribly difficult for an adult to appreciate and conceive, while it is easily digested by a 10 year old child who is musically gifted. Clearly, no experience can replace the freshness and receptivity of childhood – how we all envy such reminiscence by the end of tonight’s performance.

Patrick P.L. Lam



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