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.

Review: Mozart and Beethoven, New York Philharmonic

Saturday, October 31 2015
David Geffen Hall, New York, NY

New York Philharmonic
Jaap van Zweden, conductor
Inon Barnatan, piano

Britten, Sinfonia da Requiem (1940)
Mozart, Piano Concerto No. 23 (1786)
Beethoven, Symphony No. 5 (1808)

When it is Halloween on a Saturday night and the Mets are playing in the World Series, there are millions of New Yorkers out and about in thousands of clubs and bars (and the parade).  The sheer number of them (and the parade route) presented considerable obstacle in my getting to Lincoln Center, though once there I had no problem obtaining a last-minute ticket to the New York Philharmonic concert.  On any other night, such a sensational program of Mozart and Beethoven’s best-known works ought to be sold out well in advance.  Or so I hope.

The concert opened with Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem, which I suppose makes some thematic sense, especially in relation to Beethoven’s 5th in the second half of the program.  Also, surely a New York band can’t have an entire program made out of such prosaic works as Mozart’s most evocative concerto and Beethoven’s best-known symphony (well, arguable, but one of his top three symphonies certainly, which is still saying a lot).  Sinfonia da Requiem has an interesting backstory: it was commissioned by the Japanese government for the occasion of the anniversary of the founding of the Japanese Empire.  By then Japan was already in war with China and allying with Germany.  Being a conscientious objector of war himself, and having lost his parents in the preceding years, Britten chose the opportunity to write “kind of a requiem” dedicated to the memory of his parents while expressing his anti-war conviction.  It is puzzling that anyone, let alone everyone–Britten, his publishers, the Japanese officials who evidently approved the proposal–thought this would be acceptable for the Japanese celebrations, and indeed upon completion it was rejected by the Japanese government for its Christian nature and overall somber character.  Being somewhat distracted myself, I didn’t pay much attention except for reading the program notes and as such can’t remark much else about the Sinfonia.  It certainly is a solemn piece, a memorial, and I believe one can hear the encroachment of war as well in the quiet marching rhythm of the middle section.

As I had written previously, I find Mozart uninteresting to listen to with a few important exceptions.  Piano Concerto No. 23 is one of such exceptions.  The first and third movements are playful and joyous and typical Mozart, but that middle adagio movement…I can think of no other movement in all of music that conveys so much weight in so few light keys.  Set in the rarely heard F-sharp minor, the piano solo is lonely and wounded, speaking few words as one does when no words can capture the depth of one’s sadness, trying at times to veer into the unexpected, but invariably falling back into a somber if stable resolution.  Every time that I listen, the piano represents a lonesome soul trying to break out of profound sorrow.  Less clear to me is what the orchestra represents.  Depending on my mood the orchestra is either the wall that the piano hits in its attempt to break free or the equally desolate if somewhat mellower outside world that the piano glimpses when it does.  Occasionally I hear the orchestra as offering a more mature and nuanced stance, trying to engage in dialogue with the piano to soothe its pain.  One can argue that these three interpretations are in fact not mutually exclusive.  Even less clear, then, is the relationship between the adagio and the very upbeat first and third movements surrounding it.  Perhaps each movement represents a phase of life: the first, the carefreeness of youth, the second, the difficult struggles of early adulthood–in particular those of unrequited love, and the finale, joy both well-earned and readily-expressed from the perspective of old(er) age.

Inon Barnatan’s performance is the first that I have heard live of this work.  Overall it was underwhelming, though the audience takes possibly the lion’s share of the blame.  Barnatan’s entrance in the first movement was too quiet and swallowed by the orchestra, as if he were not taking us on the emotional journey as it unfolds but rather reliving it in his memory, which I suppose he was.  The main letdown was the adagio, during which there were a lot of unsolicited noise from the audience–incessant coughing, a keychain that kept rustling, the loud thud of some heavy object being dropped–that completely ruined the delicate dynamic of the movement.  To my eye and ear, the pianist took the right gentle approaches to the music but just couldn’t sustain the spell with the audience’s coughing nearly drowning out his playing, at which point there were some questionable rushed notes here and there.  What a shame.

The second half of the program proved that the audience was capable of holding their coughs (which made their rudeness during the Mozart concerto even less excusable–does it suggest that the audience was bored by seven of the most profound minutes of the entire Classical repertoire?).  According to the program notes, while Beethoven was composing his Fifth Symphony, he was: losing his hearing, had an infection which threatened the additional loss of a finger, left to his own devices as his brother–who had managed much of his affairs–got married, himself rejected in love, constantly moving from lodging to lodging, and saw his adopted city of Vienna occupied by Napoleon’s troops.  I suppose life’s hardships tend to enhance an artist’s creativity.  Consider myself: dealt with socio-temporally adjusted versions of a subset of the same struggles that ensnared Beethoven, I am…writing this blog.  On the other hand, the Fifth–with its emphatic, chaotic, fatalistic themes–did not represent the whole of Beethoven’s life, or at least his outlook, at the time of its composition.  He had composed his understated Fourth and pastoral Sixth Symphonies during roughly the same time as the Fifth, which really is remarkable.

In any case, Beethoven’s Fifth is about as famous as any piece of classical music (maybe surpassed or equalled in that aspect only by his Ninth), and like the Mozart concerto, this was also the first time that I have heard this symphony live.  In a piece of music so pervasive in even pop culture, it can be hard to find anything new, but I thought Jaap van Zweden did a wonderful job both punctuating the famous motifs and bringing out some more subtle passages, even if subtle is not necessarily a word one would use to describe this piece.  In particular, the opening notes of the second movement were almost pastoral-like, something I noticed for the first time, possibly in reaction to reading the program notes.  Moreover, as much criticism as I have piled on this orchestra’s brasswinds, under van Zweden they contributed all the right amount of exaltations to the performance, and the woodwinds (with the exception of the contrabassoon) were excellent, especially the principal oboe whose solo passages effectively bridged themes for the rest of the orchestra.  A worthy interpretation and performance of this momentous piece of music.