Reaction: Beethoven and Mahler, New York Philharmonic

Wednesday, February 16 2017
David Geffen Hall, New York, NY

New York Philharmonic
Manfred Honeck, conductor
Inon Barnatan, piano

Beethoven, Piano Concerto No. 1 (1797)
Mahler, Symphony No. 1 (1888)

This blog, being 1.5 years and some 40 blog posts old now, is at a cross road.  On the one hand, writing semi-critically about concerts has profoundly deepened my understanding and appreciation of music and (most) musicians.  On the other hand, however, free time is becoming more and more of a luxury, and I’m not sure the best way to spend it is rehashing how much I cringe at New York Philharmonic’s brass.  In the longer term I may have to be selective in which concerts to blog about or quit altogether, but for now I’m going to post brief “reactions” in lieu of longer and (what are intended to be) more cerebral “reviews” for concerts that stir up nothing new in me.  I imagine this will cover all the New York Philharmonic concerts in the foreseeable future.

Now, as for the music itself…I’m obviously no musicologist, in fact I didn’t even bother reading the program notes, but on some level I perceive Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto and Mahler’s First Symphony to be very similar in the context of their respective composer’s opus.  Both are early works with glimpses of the cosmic themes that would dominate the composers’ later periods, yet both feature childlike elements of joy and wonder.  I thought the Beethoven went really well.  (Well, the piano was a little too quiet to start, but I say the same about every piano concerto performed with this orchestra.)  In fact, I was surprised to read in my own blog that I’ve already heard Mr. Barnatan perform Mozart’s 23rd–he made no impression at all with a forgettable performance of an impossibly unforgettable piece of music.  On this evening he played Beethoven as few do anymore, balancing emotion and restraint, wonder and maturity.  The orchestra took a more transparent approach and didn’t hold anything back.  I’m used to the second movement being played with more tenderness, but in this performance Mr. Honeck turned the orchestra’s usual weakness in its lack of nuance into a strength, underscoring the element of innocence in the concerto.

The Mahler went pretty well too, modulo my usual complaints about the brass, which especially affected the first movement.  The third movement was absolutely sublime, with the smoothest, most haunting double bass solo playing a familiar but contorted nursery rhyme, answered in turn by the oboe.  In all the recordings I’ve ever heard of this symphony, the oboe happily blasts dance tunes over the funeral march.  Principal oboist Liang Wang, a prince among men, expressed so many emotions in so few measures, imbuing the typically playful grace notes with heartbreaking sensitivity.  Twenty minutes later, the finale was explosive beyond words; I don’t know if Mahler’s First *should* sound quite so earth-shattering, but overall the performance worked.

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