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Double the Pleasure, Double the Fun

New York
David Geffen Hall, Lincoln Center
08/08/2017 -  & August 9*, 2017
Johannes Brahms: Concerto for Violin and Cello in A minor, opus 102
Johann Sebastian Bach: The Art of Fugue, BWV 1080: Contrapunctus XIV (arr. Manze)
Felix Mendelssohn: Symphony No. 5 in D major (“Reformation”), opus 107

Joshua Bell (violin), Steven Isserlis (cello)
Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra, Andrew Manze (conductor)

A. Manze (© Gunter Glücklich)

“[T]he master, whose sense of responsibility grew with increasing age, was anxious to create a true Concerto and not another Symphony in disguise.”
Karl Geiringer, Brahms, His Life and Work

Even for those of us who love it, the Brahms “Double” Concerto is a problem piece. Except perhaps for the performances of brothers Adolf and Hermann Busch, the work seems like an Olympian competitive event, two heavyweights in the same arena. Brahms did indeed jettison some of his symphonic penchant to keep the mood light and sunny or, if dramatic, rather airily so. The problem in performance is not to feature one or the other soloist. This equilibrium is usually rather unsuccessfully avoided in favor of competition. Despite the camaraderie in rehearsal, when the curtain goes up all bets are off.

Opening with this expansive work is rather an unusual gambit, and seemed a bit cheeky on this occasion. Everyone on that stage appeared to be united in their mission to disappoint their audience. The balance between violin and cello was so skewed that Mr. Isserlis might not have been there at all while Mr. Bell seemed unmindful of his surroundings, drowning out his mate at many turns and stealing the spotlight as often as possible. The normally accurate festival orchestra experienced a bad night of sloppy entrances and simply botched notes. The performance as a whole was at best unsatisfying, at worst amateurish. Conductor Manze did little to reign in his troop’s penchant for schmaltz and this normally beautiful orchestral essay devolved into a bit of an overly painted harlot. Ironically, the best performance of the evening was the encore, as Bell and Isserlis joined the group for a rendition of the second movement of the Schumann Violin Concerto arranged by Benjamin Britten.

After the intermission, Maestro Manze found another way to embarrass himself. He launched into a speech with many purportedly amusing punchlines. Lecturing at a concert is still a rather new phenomenon but one that is, unfortunately, starting to take hold. Mr. Manze was so unamusing as to be embarrassing, reminding of an over the hill comedian still trying to tickle his audience with extremely stale jokes, think Milton Berle in his eighties grinding out material from his vaudeville era. All this jibber-jabber was employed to introduce Manze’s own transcription of a Bach piece, the Contrapunctus XIV, from Art of Fugue, the sort of assignment that any third year harmony student might produce. This performance was notable for some fingernails on the blackboard wrong notes and botched entrances. Truly a disappointment.

The Mendelssohn 5, which its composer foreswore and refused to conduct for years, has the distinction of being thought “too Semitic” and formally rejected as being “too Protestant”. We modern audiences can simply wish a pox on all houses and enjoy it for what it is worth, a rather youthful effort that languished for so long that it was eventually immortalized as the final symphony of its insecure composer. It is, for me at any rate, a problem piece, but one with some superb parts on display.

Manze stated that this was the premiere performance of the work in the United States except for the fact that they had already presented it the evening before (an example of his precious bons mots). Although it was quite a suspension of disbelief, let us be charitable and accept this premise, the most notable passage being the transition from the third movement to the last. Whatever version, this was a bit of a staid rendition, although this might have been more the fault of the composer than the conductor. All in all a forgettable evening at the symphony.

Fred Kirshnit



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