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New York
Avery Fisher Hall
05/14/2003 -  
Toru Takemitsu: Ceremonial
Johannes Brahms: Violin Concerto

Mayumi Miyata (sho)
Kyung-Wha Chung (violin)
New York Philharmonic
Andre Previn (conductor)

Like many of his Viennese contemporaries, Johannes Brahms strongly associated the violin with the music of Hungary. Not only did he bloom in an environment where the sounds of the lower Danube added flavor to the local musical stew, but his first professional experience as a classical musician, after his tavern and bawdy-house years, was as the accompanist for Eduard Remenyi, a touring recitalist who combined standard sonata fare with native melodies and exotic rhythms. Soon thereafter, Brahms became the best friend of Joseph Joachim, a Magyar fiddler who exerted a tremendous influence upon his mature lyrical thought processes. Joachim’s influence can be felt in many pieces, most notably in the finale of the G Minor Piano Quartet, a dizzying dance compilation much wilder than anything produced in Vienna before its time (it becomes even more feral in the Schoenberg transcription for full orchestra, the percussion especially adept at emphasizing its atavistic qualities).

But the work most closely associated with Joachim is Brahms’ Violin Concerto, a goulash perhaps less peppered than some of the famous stand-alone dances, but interlaced at every bite with the pungent sauce of the south. In one of his lesser moments, the composer asked another violinist to premiere the work, but after he refused with one of the greatest quotes in the history of classical music:

“…and what am I supposed to do while all of this beautiful music is going on?”

Brahms put aside some petty differences and dedicated the piece to Joachim, who immediately made it his own. Over the years, however, some of the paprika has been removed by the erosion of more decidedly “romantic” interpretations. Now in its third century, the old chestnut cries out for a fresh approach, a task only fit for a Hungarian trained master.

Enter Kyung-Wha Chung. Although not herself a graduate of the Liszt Academy, Ms. Chung emerged from a solid Korean technical background and became the protégé of Joseph Szigeti, Bela Bartok’s recital partner and a formidable intellectual. The union of this raw child with the erudite professor was the most fortuitous since that of Buda and Pest (Ms. Chung publicly credits Szigeti for introducing her to art and literature) and left the aspiring soloist with a healthy ability to explore deeply into the cultural center of a composition, a capacity sorely lacking in most of her conservatory trained colleagues. Certainly since the death of Georg Solti, she is the greatest Bartok champion on the planet; last evening at Avery Fisher, she staked her claim as the most insightful interpreter of Brahms.

This was a stunning performance, making one rethink the old familiar work and see it as a fresh and challenging exclamation of divine passion. It would be too mild to state that Ms. Chung dug into the piece; she pursued it down a deep, dark hole like a ravenous predator. The outer movements were notable especially for the holding of dotted notes just a bit longer than any more “respectable” violinist would do, as well as the subtle lengthening of silences just enough to turn them from natural breaks to pregnant pauses. This was playing at the highest possible level of intensity, the net effect on the audience a mass moving up to the edge of our chairs. Once the stage was set for the big cadenza (of course, written by Joachim) all ears were open and attuned to this revolutionary approach. Chung then conducted a master class on lupine passion, clipping the phrases so that they were transformed into the wildest possible of primitive utterances, unbridled lust or the gnashings of teeth. She didn’t just perform this concerto, she ate it for lunch.

The middle movement was a study in contrast, Ms. Chung displaying a gorgeous vibrato that recalled the heydays of some of Mr. Szigeti’s more sentimental contemporaries. One of the characteristics of her playing is a healthy disregard for current fads and trends, her delicious portamento sliding in the face of modern, period instrument, conservatism. After such a sensitive adagio, the third movement sounded even more daring and whipped the crowd into an absolute frenzy. Their final response was a gigantic standing ovation that called Ms. Chung back to the stage many times.

Living by the sword, this white-hot performance contained a number of errors of commission and something seemed a bit amiss between the virtuosa and her violin in spots, the sound hardly what I would describe as refined. And yet, this was all part of the exceptional nature of this untamed and revelatory performance. Andre Previn, the most effective of the regular guest conductors of the Phil, took a little while to get in sync with his dervish of a soloist, but did in time shape the orchestral phrases to be complimentary to this unusual interpretation.

The concert opened with a rare treat, a study by Toru Takemitsu contrasting the sound of the gagaku with that of a western orchestra. The sho is a Japanese mouth organ, an ingenious little construction which is reminiscent of its gigantic cathedral counterpart, pipes ascending towards heaven, just on a much smaller (and employing a very different) scale, with a connecting mouthpiece which, when properly blown into, produces an overtonal potpourri not unlike its cousin in the European loft. Entitled Ceremonial, the piece captured the decorous nature of the gagaku, a private orchestra only authorized for the most wealthy or noble of families. My only frustration with the piece was that the sho and the orchestra did not play at the same time, leaving the twain never actually meeting.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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