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Wrung Out by the Old

New York
Avery Fisher Hall
01/02/2001 -  
Johannes Brahms: Piano Concerto # 2, Symphony # 4
Elisabeth Leonskaja (piano)
New York Philharmonic
Kurt Masur (conductor)

Although someone at the Philharmonic was hip enough to program Also Sprach Zarathustra during the first month of this special new year, the premier concert of the mathematical new century is actually the second repeat of a program begun way back during the last millennium. The evening is the fraternal twin of the final music that I heard in 2000, a splendid collaboration of Maestro Masur and pianist Garrick Ohlsson in the d minor, the two Brahms concerti forming a comforting continuum for those of us who no longer measure the passage of time with deep warmth and affection (having been raised in Connecticut, I am now old enough to remember the president-elect’s grandfather). As the orchestra and its two major sister ensembles to the North and South enter this brave new world each leader and directionless, an introspective examination of standard repertoire may be the only method of keeping them focused, even as their audience gradually but inexorably alters demographically and metastasizes intellectually.

The gentle conception of the 2nd Concerto meshed perfectly with that of Mr. Ohlsson in the 1st. However, while his beautiful serenity was born of the most intense musicality, the tentative and extremely quiet pianism of Elisabeth Leonskaja seemed to be the spawn of necessity as she never exhibited any verve or strength in her playing. In fact, her poor attention to accuracy and her almost inaudible right hand allowed me to focus rather on the fine accompaniment of the orchestra. Other than a rather disappointingly thin cello solo in the third movement, the assembled instrumental forces and their capable conductor supplied a firm and aesthetically pleasing foundation for an otherwise unsatisfactory performance.

Unshackled from Ms. Leonskaja, Masur led his troops in a spectacular reading of the 4th. Even before the beginning, this Central European repertoire expert exhorted them with expressive gestures to produce a warm but rugged opening phrase which set the mood for a somewhat bucolic rendition of the work as a whole. Orchestras adapt over time to the styles of their leaders, but conductors must also be realistic enough to adapt to the strengths and weaknesses of their ensembles. It seems clear that Mr. Masur has chosen this particular primeval style evocative of the Black Forest (and certainly fitting for the natural painting of the composer) since any thoughts of a more silken string sound are simply out of the present New York question. This primitive reading was enhanced significantly by Maestro’s exquisite phrasing throughout; taking his cue from the broad rubato line of the opening, he feted us all with elongated melodies and judiciously dramatic pauses, helped appreciably by fine wind playing, especially the intense solo work of principal clarinetist Stanley Drucker. Masur also emphasized the variations of the finale, drawing clear lines of demarcation between ideas and altering tempi and dynamics liberally. This was a wonderful performance, perhaps the best that I have ever heard live.

The trio of Brahms concerts (the Requiem graces this weekend) surrounding the turn of millennium seems to have been programmed by Masur as a showcase for his resplendent talents in this particular genre. The first two evenings, as well as, by all accounts, a kick-ass Beethoven 9 during the holidays, have proven once again how conversant he is in the music of the 4 B’s (Bruckner being a particular favorite). The New York Philharmonic is no longer an innovative orchestra and, surface noise from out of touch critics notwithstanding, their core public does not want them to be that type of performing body. Mr. Masur’s steady hand at the helm of standard German music must give some pause to those short-sighted board members who, with no decent alternative in sight, voted for his unceremonious ouster.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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