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In the Shadow of Olympus

New York
Avery Fisher Hall
01/16/2002 -  
Peter Ruzicka: Nachtstueck
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Piano Concerto # 24
Johannes Brahms: Symphony # 1

Yefim Bronfman (piano)
New York Philharmonic
Christian Thielemann (conductor)

“…contrary to superstition, the last word in symphonies shall not be spoken as long as there are people who, with requisite knowledge and ability, can delve into themselves and are thereby capable of speaking their own musical language.”

Carl Will, letter to Johannes Brahms, October 1876

The problem with Beethoven was that he died. After creating such a monumental work as the 9th Symphony and premiering it in 1824, he left a void which was not even approached until the mature Brahms felt ready to accept the challenge. Not that there were not beautiful pieces in the genre, especially those of Schumann and Mendelssohn, but no composer dared to challenge such depths of tragedy until 1876. By that time, Brahms’ First Symphony had existed in at least partial form for 14 years, but the man so respectful of music history and his place within its confines dared not to publish such a titanic work without the assurance of maturity and the ability to hear the piece firsthand in a provincial setting. Significantly, Brahms journeyed back to the scene of his youth, finding the requisite tranquility only in the islands of the Baltic. By 1876, as the above quoted missive from the concertmaster of the Karlsruhe Orchestra which premiered the new symphony makes clear, it was assumed that no one could successfully continue the Beethovenian tradition of high tragedy and its musical resolutions. Small wonder that Hans von Buelow would soon label the impressive new work as “Beethoven’s Tenth”.

The similarities between the Brahms 1 and the Beethoven 9 are many. The most noticeable is the signature theme of the fourth movement in both, so similar to each other in melodic content and granitic import. Brahms used the experience of his other great work in C Minor, the Piano Quartet, Op. 60, as the basis for his final compositional style in the symphony. This chamber work was begun many years earlier in the heat of his passions for both Clara and Robert Schumann, but was only finished once the composer felt worldly wise enough to be able to express the underlying emotions in a mature manner. In this urtext, he also quotes from a symphony of Beethoven, appropriating the fate motif from the 5th as the main theme of the quartet’s finale (when confronted about this by a critic, the gruff Brahms replied “any damn fool can see that!”). Further, the Hamburg master chooses the unusual key of E Major for the second movement of his symphony in C Minor (there is not a very close connection between these two signatures) just as he had done in his quartet (and Beethoven had in his Piano Concerto # 3). The resulting two works are polished syntheses of youthful longings and adult considerations.

This may seem a strange criticism, but Christian Thielemann works too hard at being a conductor. Bounding out from the wings after the interval, he began the powerfully pounding introduction, which the composer added towards the end of the long creative process (can you imagine Brahms First without this relentless opening?), before the echo of the applause had faded. Mr. T has a way with New York ensembles, recently leading a critically acclaimed Frau ohne Schatten across the plaza, and periodically demonstrating his ability to employ his baton as a divining rod to locate the emotional center of this elusive orchestra. The first movement was a marvel of great tension and it appeared that this young conductor would win the night. However, as the proceedings moved along, the symphony began to suffer a loss of propulsion due to the obsessive tinkering of the budding maestro. There were so many speed-ups, slow-downs, build-ups and letdowns that the work seemed positively schizophrenic, containing more changes of tempo and dynamics than a dense piece of late Webern. At one point I looked down at my program to see if the work were listed as “Johannes Brahms (arr. Thielemann)”. One section was especially precious: the horn fanfare which introduces that theme of universal goodwill in the finale, normally intoned boldly, was this night declaimed very softly, exposing the arpeggios in the strings that are usually not consciously heard (even though over fifty people are playing them) but rather felt. This aberration was followed by a trombone chorale played at one quarter its normal speed, producing a Brucknerian effect that would have driven Hanslick wild. When the fanfare returned, it was built into a huge crescendo. None of these touches are to be found in the score. This is not a young man’s game: one needs the wisdom (and status) of a Mengelberg or Mahler to play this slow and loose with an acknowledged masterpiece. The Phil plays very well for Christian Thielemann; he would be better served if he simply let them!

The program began with the obligatory piece of contemporary music, utilized primarily to allow the latecomers time to assemble at the entrances. This one sounded like the score of a very predictable detective story on television (the stakeout scene). What followed was by far the highlight of the evening. With very little notice, Yefim Bronfman was engaged to fill in for Thomas Hampson, who was to have sung The Wound Dresser of John Adams, but begged off due to illness. There was no time for Thielemann to take the substituted Mozart score back to his garage for retooling, so instead he provided a solid, somewhat dark background for the fine pianism at hand. Bronfman’s reading was very powerful in its understatement, nearly flawless in its execution, and highly satisfying in its graceful proportions. The hastily invited guest of honor even brought dessert in the form of his own cadenza, an energetic and earopening set of variations on the main musical material. This was an excellent and dignified performance of a very significant opus. The entire fortuitous surprise allowed us all to concentrate on the lineage of the main work of the evening. Brahms’ great symphony may have grown out of Beethoven’s majesty, but this profound sense of tragic import had already been nurtured through the
divine inspiration of Mozart.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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