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Yearning to Breathe Free

New York
Carnegie Hall
05/07/2003 -  
Johannes Brahms: Piano Concerto #1, Symphony #2
Yefim Bronfman (piano)
Bavarian Radio Symphony
Lorin Maazel (conductor)

“…When Erkel returned to the podium at the end of the concert, the applause almost took on the character of a demonstration: the public thus manifested its gratitude toward a conductor who does not compose.”

Viktor von Herzfeld, Neues Pester Journal,
November 1889, on the occasion of the premiere of Mahler’s Symphony #1 in Pest

Like the Statue of Liberty, Lorin Maazel was born in Paris but was shipped to the United States at an early age. In the current climate of aversion on this side of the pond to all things French, it is amusing to note that the press office of the New York Philharmonic is now describing the maestro as “a second generation American born in Paris”. There was some local flap about whether or not the Phil had indeed hired a true blue native son, reminiscent of the controversy in the early 1980’s as to the possibility of Connecticut senator and then governor Lowell Weicker running for president, having also been born in the City of Light (Maazel fans take note: the issue was rendered moot by Weicker’s unpopularity). Now busy shedding his European skin, Mr. Maazel leads one more tour of his Bavarian Radio Orchestra (Mariss Jansons will soon be taking over) in a Brahms festival at Carnegie at exactly the same time as his predecessor, Kurt Masur, returns up the street for a spin with the same orchestra that treated him like yesterday’s newspaper for an entire embarrassing season, leaving the otherwise well respected kapellmeister twisting in the wind like an Emil Jannings character, dignified but rejected (I apologize to younger readers. I really did try and think of a more current Hollywood example, but realized that humiliation in our modern era is much cruder now than in the sophisticated 1920’s). It seems a bit mean spirited to be going head to head with Masur, but perhaps the scheduling is just one of those unfortunate coincidences that tend to shine the spotlight on one’s baser instincts. New York can be a cold town, even in May.

Any resemblance to the statue disappears immediately upon Maazel’s enshrinement on the podium. Here I am not praising him for his animation, but rather upbraiding him for his self-absorption. Longtime listeners know in advance that any performance led by him will be much less about the original creator and much more about his contemporary interpreter, who fancies himself a composer. This often leads to exciting music making (I have thrilling memories of several concerts from Pittsburgh), but can also mire one and all in the muck of fussy, precious and decidedly idiosyncratic micromanagement, no phrase too small for personal scrutiny and aesthetic cleansing. At the end of the night, one has not heard Brahms, but rather Maazel.

With a much more proficient orchestra than the New York Philharmonic erasing the need for evaluation of technical shortcomings, it was immediately apparent that this version of the Piano Concerto # 1 was going to be a very personal one, the opening phrase clipped off by a notably staccato ending, jarring to the ears of anyone who grew up loving the melody’s intrinsically lyrical quality. In typical Maazel fashion, this initial movement was both challenging and disappointing, the fires of Sturm und Drang glowing darkly, the natural beauty disturbed by excessive tinkering. Ironically, soloist Yefim Bronfman presented his take on the piece in a notably straightforward manner, almost too foursquare for sensuous Romantic expression. When the writing begged for at least a touch of rubato, Bronfman forged on rather metronomically, even as the conductor was tweaking the tempi almost measure for measure. Certainly there were moments of great clarity, especially Maazel’s expert handling of the fugue in movement three, the viola line insistently urgent and propulsive, the Ancient Mariner stopping the Wedding Guest, but the brisk, Baroque pace of the adagio belied its designation (it was even beyond the realm of the allegretto) and destroyed any sense of the dignity and grace of its secret dedicatee Clara Schumann. Bronfman saved this first half by savagely digging in to the finale of the Sonata # 7 of Prokofieff as an encore, his eloquent left hand establishing an absolutely frightening rhythmic juxtaposition to the multiplicity of right hand notes (a much better performance than at his recital earlier this season).

After the interval, a somewhat standard rendition of the Second Symphony seemed almost exceptional in its fealty to the score, the few conductorial touches, such as the pause in the second movement just before the swelling violins, sometimes employed in better historical performances, particularly delicious. It must be difficult for the players to relearn all of the classics and strictly follow the gospel according to Lorin, a little like working with the no vibrato Roger Norrington school: all of one’s natural instincts must be bent to fit the new world order. Although we had the opportunity to hug some interesting trees last evening, none of us, including the maestro, seems to have really experienced the forest.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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