Friday, March 30, 2018

Christian Tetzlaff - All-Bach - 03/28/18

Bach: Sonata No. 2 in A Minor, BWV 1003 
Bach: Partita No. 2 in D Minor, BWV 1004 
Bach: Sonata No. 3 in C Major, BWV 1005 
Bach: Partita No. 3 in E Major, BWV 1006 

There are very few violinists who can handle Johann Sebastian Bach with the knowledge, technique and aplomb of Christian Tetzlaff, so any performance of the former by the latter is a must-attend for any dedicated music lover. Therefore, I don’t have to emphasize how thrilled I was when I originally saw both names mentioned in the same concert program in the Lincoln Center’s Great Performers series this season. Even better, the concert would take place in the wonderful Alice Tully Hall.
I was much less thrilled though, when I saw that he would only be performing the last four of Bach’s six Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin. Granted, the full set, which is widely considered the pinnacle of the violin repertoire, is so mercilessly challenging that it is rarely played in its entirety. But it can be done. I also want to point out that the only two violinists I have ever witnessed make it through the daunting marathon were Rachel Barton Pine and Kyung Wha Chung. So much for the weaker sex.
But the offer was still awfully hard to resist… and I frankly did not even try. In fact, I was so much looking forward to it that last week I accidentally took my Christian Tetzlaff concert ticket to gain admittance to my Joshua Bell concert. So many violinists, so little time.

Christian Tetzlaff may be one of the most acclaimed violinists of our times, but he is not the flashy type. And sure enough, as soon as he had placed himself in the middle of the bare stage in the full and hushed auditorium on Wednesday night, he went right down to business with the Sonata No. 2 in A Minor and let the music gloriously speak for itself for the next two hours. As he was working his way through the first piece on the program with uncompromising steadfastness, the most outstanding movement for me had to be the deeply expressive Andante, which beautifully stood out between the complex Fugue and the light-hearted Allegro.
Although I was lucky enough to hear the Partita No. 2 in D Minor played with supreme poise by Anne-Sophie Mutter a few weeks ago, I was more than ready for Tetzlaff’s take on it. The four relatively short dances preceding the Chaconne inevitably appear lightweight compared to the Himalaya the last movement represents, but they still stood out proudly on their own. Seemingly impregnable, the Chaconne nevertheless had to bend to Tetzlaff’s unwavering grip and unfolded with force and brilliance.
The Chaconne may be more naturally engaging, and therefore more popular, but the Fugue of the Sonata No. 3 in C Major is notoriously longer and more difficult to tame. When a consummate virtuoso like Tetzlaff handles it though, the result turns out memorable for its laser-like execution and the pure musical enjoyment it conveys. The other three movements were just about as gripping, in particular the immaculately serene Largo, which expertly balanced the intensity of the Fugue.
I’ve always found the exuberant Partita No. 3 in E Major bitter-sweet, bitter because it is the last leg of one amazing journey, and sweet because its French flavor never fails to tickle me. It hits the ground running with the kind of spectacular fireworks usually reserved for the grand finale in the Preludio, features the fun little Gavotte en Rondeau that has since taken a life of its own, especially as a concert encore, and generally offers exciting dance-inspired movements. Tetzlaff concluded his remarkable performance with plenty of momentum left and earned a rousing vacation from the ecstatic audience.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

NYCO - Il Pigmalione/Pigmalion - 03/24/18

Gil Rose: Conductor 
Richard Stafford: Stage Director & Choreographer 
New York City Orchestra 

 Il Pigmalione 
Composer: Gaetano Donizetti 
Piotr Buszewski: Pigmalione 
Jessica Sandidge: Galatea 

Composer: Jean-Philippe Rameau 
Thor Arbjornsson: Pigmalion 
Samarie Alicea: La statue 
Melanie Long: Cupid 
Julia Snowden: Céphise
New York City Opera Chorus 
New York City Opera Dancers

Although the myth of Pygmalion as narrated in Ovid’s Metamorphoses is universal and familiar (Who hasn't heard of My Fair Lady, at least?), two of the operas that were inspired by it, Gaetano Donizetti’s Il Pigmalione and Jean-Philippe Rameau’s Pigmalion, are less so. Thing is, Il Pigmalione was never performed during Donizetti’s lifetime while Pigmalion was one of Rameau’s biggest hits, but neither appears regularly in opera houses nowadays.
Enters the New York City Opera, which knows an obviously complementary yet sharply contrasting double-bill when it sees one. Due to their short running time, both operas can easily be programmed one after the other within two hours, which made the endeavor not only possible, but also very exciting. So exciting, in fact, that the management had to switch the venue to the well-proportioned and comfortable Lynch Theater at John Jay College due to overwhelming demand.
So last Saturday, I first did my political bit marching down Broadway to bring my whole-hearted support to school kids trying to stay alive (What a concept!) earlier in the day. And then I went west to the Lynch Theater to do my cultural bit attending the first of the double-bill’s two performances to bring my whole-hearted support to out-of-the-box initiatives later in the afternoon. And the beat goes on…

The first opera on the program was the Italian Il Pigmalione, which in fact was having its long-overdue US premiere on Saturday afternoon. Donizetti wrote Il Pigmalione in six days in 1816, when he was 19, as a school assignment and apparently did not think much of it after he had moved on to bigger and better things.
Il Pigmalione is worth-knowing though, not just out of curiosity, but also for the sheer pleasure of witnessing Donizetti’s much praised bel canto style and keen sense of drama being born. As presented on Saturday afternoon, the one-act, two-character work was essentially an over-extended one-man show by Pygmalion, with a short cameo by Galatea towards the end, on a mostly bare stage, save for the actual statue smack in the middle of it.
By default the opera’s weight fell squarely on the shoulders of the tenor, who had to convey a mind driven to distraction by its relentless pining for the attractive artwork. And sure enough, Polish tenor Piotr Buszewski showed us all how it’s done with natural charisma, laudable acting skills, and a powerful voice. As the woman behind me pointed out to her companion: “This is a tough part to pull off.”
As the living statue Galatea, American soprano Jessica Sandidge’s voice had the natural luminosity required for the small but critical part, and managed to capture the audience’s attention even from behind her screen. It is a real shame that we did not get to hear more of her, but the opera was over before we got a chance to indulge.
After the intermission, we jumped back 68 years to end up in mid-18th century France, where Louis XV was the leader of the country and Rameau the leader of the music scene. The composer wrote Pigmalion in eight days in 1748, when he was 65, as a crown achievement and did not spare any expenses. Even the relatively small-scale production presented by the NYCO kept up to 17 performers busy at the same time.
After Il Pigmalione’s modern, minimalist and somber staging, Pigmalion’s set looked even more old-fashioned, opulent and crowded. Some smart ideas were efficiently implemented, such as having the statues and the mere mortals become alive at opposite moments as if no connection could be established between the two worlds. Alas, as in any self-respecting opera-ballet, we were also stuck with pleasant but endless celebratory dancing. While every performer gave it their all and put on a very entertaining show, it often felt like the story, not to mention the singing, were stalled for way too long.
On the other hand, when they got an opportunity to make themselves heard, the voices were most enjoyable. Icelandic tenor Thor Arbjornsson was a sweet-voiced Pigmalion totally enraptured by the graceful and endearing statue that was Puerto Rican Samarie Alicea. Mezzo-soprano Melanie Long managed to avoid any syrupy cuteness as the hard-working Cupid while mezzo-soprano Julia Snowden was an appropriately miffed Céphise, the sculptor’s neglected paramour.
Going from Donizetti’s vibrant bel canto lyricism to Rameau’s refined Baroque intricacies can’t be easy, and the much put-upon orchestra had prolonged flashes of true inspiration as well as fleeting moments of perceptible struggle. But musicians and conductor more or less managed to hold everything together and provide commendable support to the unusual, but ultimately totally satisfying, feat.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Perlman, Zukerman and de Silva - Goldberg, Mozart, Wieniawski, Bartok & Moszkowski - 03/22/18

Goldberg: Sonata for Two Violins and Keyboard in C Major (formerly attributed to J.S. Bach, BWV 1037) 
Mozart: Duo for Violin and Viola in G Major, K. 423 
Wieniawski: Étude-caprice No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 18 
Wieniawski: Étude-caprice No. 4 in A Minor, Op. 18 
Bartok: Selections from Forty-Four Duos for Two Violins, BB 104 
Moszkowski: Suite for Two Violins and Piano in G Minor, Op. 71 

Getting a chance to hear legendary violinist Itzhak Perlman is way too rare of a pleasure these days mostly because he does not schedule enough performances. Getting a chance to hear legendary pianist Martha Argerich is way too rare of a pleasure these days too, mostly because she schedules performances and then cancels. So needless to say that after seeing both of them headlining a recital at Carnegie Hall this season, I immediately grabbed one of the fast-going tickets and kept my fingers solidly crossed.
Unfortunately, they were not crossed solidly enough because a few weeks before the concert date, Martha Argerich cancelled. Apparently nonplussed by the frustrating but not entirely unexpected change of plan, Perlman dug into his no doubt impressive Rolodex and got violinist and violist Pinchas Zukerman and pianist Rohan de Silva on board for a seemingly casual yet unmistakably high-flying evening of virtuosic music-making.Therefore, the music would go on.
On Thursday, one day after our fourth nor’easter in three weeks brought the city to a semi-halt again, things were more or less back to usual. And Carnegie Hall’s Stern Auditorium was packed to the rafters, where I found myself amidst a surprisingly young audience, quite possibly due to Zukerman’s tireless dedication to music education.

The concert started with court harpsichordist Johann Gottlieb Goldberg’s Sonata for Two Violins and Keyboard, which used to be attributed to Johann Sebastian Bach, who of course wrote the famous Goldberg Variations (It’s a small world after all). Staunchly conventional in the best sense of the term, the charming composition immediately set the mood for the rest of the evening as emotionally conflict-free and musically gratifying.
Next, the focus turned exclusively onto the strings with the Duo for Violin and Viola in G Major by the one and only Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. In the hands of veteran stringers and long-time buddies Perlman and Zukerman, the lively dialog, which may have sounded unassuming at first, became a splendid feast of complexity, elegance and light-heartedness. I even dare say that at times Zukerman’s magnificently burnished viola almost upstaged Perlman’s effortlessly singing violin.
This week has turned out to be a mini Henryk Wieniawski festival for me as after hearing his second violin concerto courtesy of Joshua Bell on Monday, I got to hear two of his miniature étude-caprices courtesy of Perlman and Zukerman on Thursday. Even better, the selected works constituted a fascinating study in contrasts with the Étude-caprice No. 1 coming along engaging but fundamentally low-key and the Étude-caprice No. 4 brazenly exploding with fierce pyrotechnics, all in about six minutes total.
After intermission, both violinists came back for several tunes selected from Bela Bartok’s Forty-Four Duos for Two Violins, each of which was introduced by Perlman. Drawing inspiration from folk music found in places as far out as the Middle-East, the majority of those delightful nuggets came out as festive dance songs, only to be tempered by the sorrowful “Sadness”.
Rohan de Silva was back at the keyboard for Moritz Moszkowski’s Suite for Two Violins and Piano in G Minor, which at 20 minutes was the longest work of the concert. Wrapping up the official program in full Romantic mood, the trio had a ball expertly bringing out the cheerful melodies, colorful drama and glorious lyricism of the unpretentious yet brilliant piece.

But the memorable soirée was not quite over yet, as the three musicians came back for an extended encore with Shostakovich’s Three Duets for Two Violins and Piano, Op. 97d, which concluded our evening on a slightly elegiac - and, of course, totally elevated - note.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Academy of St. Martin in the Fields - Mendelssohn, Wieniawski & Beethoven - 03/19/18

Mendelssohn: Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream 
Wieniawski: Violin Concerto No. 2 in D Minor 
Joshua Bell: Violin 
Beethoven: Symphony No. 6 in F Major, Op. 68 (Pastoral) 

After a musically quiet week, I hit the road again on Monday evening and went to David Geffen Hall for the venerable Academy of St. Martin in the Fields and its music director Joshua Bell, who was also going to fulfill the additional duties of conductor for the entire concert and soloist for the Wieniawski violin concerto. Because, after all, why not hire yourself and do as you please when you’re the boss?
Book-ended by the predictable but still rewarding crowd-pleasers that are the overture by Mendelssohn and the symphony by Beethoven, Polish composer Wieniawski’s second violin concerto stood out as the exciting intruder that all self-respecting classical music programs should have. While not exactly an obscure curiosity, it certainly does not have the mass appeal that its glamorous companions have been enjoying for many decades now, but still manages to make an appearance once in a while.
So it was with high expectations that my friend Christine and I took our orchestra seats in the packed concert hall. The British (and their American leader) had come, and we were more than ready for them.

Written when Felix Mendelssohn was a mere 17-year-old youngster, his Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream turned out to be as effortlessly enchanting and improbably mature as the unabashedly sunny Octet he had come up with the year before, and which has remained one of my all-time favorite musical pick-me-ups. Maybe inspired by the Shakespeare connection, definitely relying on their well-honed skills, the orchestra gave an impeccably glowing reading of it.
Throughout the years, I have heard Joshua Bell masterfully work his way through most of the extended violin concerto repertoire, but Wieniawski’s second effort was still missing. I had never heard it played by any other violinist either. But this frustrating situation came to an end on Monday night, when I finally had the opportunity to become acquainted with the highly lyrical work, which was serendipitously performed by the virtuoso who may very well have the sweetest tone of them all. This winning combination provided the rapt audience with 20 minutes of full-blown Romantic bliss, exquisite melodies and dazzling fireworks included.
Since the composer was a brilliant fiddler himself, it comes to no surprise that his second violin concerto makes the most of the instrument’s impressive range of possibilities. On Monday night, the soloist was also a brilliant fiddler, therefore it came to no surprise either that he readily handled the devilish technical challenges with disconcerting ease. The fact that the four rows of rambunctious high schoolers behind us were stunned into silence for the entirety of the three movements is ultimate proof that the experience was truly thrilling.
After intermission, everybody stayed in an uplifted mood with Beethoven’s vibrant “Pastoral” Symphony. Written in the same period as his unceremoniously ground-breaking fifth symphony, the more restrained sixth has kept a relatively lower profile (Not that hard!), yet never fails to charm the listener. Beethoven’s symphonies are so ubiquitous in concert halls all over the world that I rarely bother to go out of my way to hear them. And when I stumble upon one sooner than later, I always end up in awe of the man’s relentless creativity.
And sure enough, on Monday night, the composer’s musical genius – as well as his deep love for the countryside – were strongly palpable as the orchestra vividly expressed feelings of contentment and delight through the colorful evocations of bucolic scenery, singing birds, merry dancing, and the almighty storm. The tempo was sustained enough to keep the music flowing along nicely and gentle enough to allow the audience to revel in the joys of nature too... and eventually leave with a smile on their faces.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Pierre-Laurent Aimard - Obukhov, Liszt, Messiaen, Scriabin & Beethoven - 03/08/18

Obukhov: Création d'or 
Obukhov: Révélation 
Liszt: Nuages gris, S. 199 
Liszt: Les jeux d’eaux à la Villa d’Este 
Messiaen: "Le Courlis Cendré" from Catalogue d'oiseaux 
Scriabin: Piano Sonata No. 5, Op. 53 
Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 29 in B-flat Major, Op. 106 (Hammerklavier) 

Forty-eight hours after a generally satisfying contemporary music concert in Zankel Hall and twenty-four hours after another exasperatingly disruptive nor’easter in New York City, I was back at Carnegie Hall on Thursday evening, in the large Stern Auditorium this time, for a recital by eminent French (Lyonnais, even!) pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard.
In typical Aimard fashion, his program was uncompromisingly ambitious, wildly eclectic yet extremely focused. It included a series of well-known and less well-known ground-breaking short pieces in the first half and Beethoven’s game-changing “Hammerklavier” in the second half. Just when we thought that we were done with spectacular Sturm und Drang for a while, there came Ludwig!

Before the concert started, my fellow Music Ambassador Karen and I were too busy catching up to read the program notes and therefore did not realize that the first half of the concert would be performed without a pause until, well, we did. But it soon became clear that there was nothing even remotely gimmicky about the unusual set-up, which had obviously been carefully thought out by the ever-scrupulous artist. Consequently, the widely different works seamlessly transitioned one into the other to gradually formed a coherent and fascinating whole.
The concert started with Nicolas Obukhov’s “Création d'or” and “Révélation”, whose strongly expressive components ranged from quasi-mystical to fully diabolical, before moving on to Franz Liszt’s mournful “Nuages gris”. The subsequent “Les jeux d’eaux à la Villa d’Este” perked things up a bit with the transparent sounds and mystical aura of the graceful Italian Renaissance fountains, before making way to a pointed description of the Eurasian curlew in Olivier Messiaen’s “Le Courlis Cendré”. Alexander Scriabin concluded the eventful journey with his intense one-movement Piano Sonata No. 5, which was as technically complex as musically fulfilling.
Aimard being a musician whose intellectual curiosity, technical skills and emotional commitment seem to know no bounds, there was no wonder that this 50-minute marathon was the kind of awe-inspiring tour de force that leaves the audience as breathless and exhilarated as the performer. And so we were.
But the evening was far from being over as the alleged main attraction, the monumental “Hammerklavier”, was still coming after the well-deserved intermission. Highly unconventional when it first came out, Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 29 has become one of the most popular pillars of the piano repertoire. Big, bold, and devastatingly beautiful at its core, the “Hammerklavier” is a ride like no other, and Aimard readily delivered a clear-minded and eloquent performance of it.

When it came to the encores, Aimard rightfully pointed out that nothing is really possible after the “Hammerklavier”. But that did not stop us from insisting, but our unrelenting pleas eventually earned us a haunting reading of Gyorgy Kurtag’s “...waiting for Susan” from Játékok, Book VI.

Friday, March 9, 2018

JACK Quartet & So Percussion - Glass, Dennehy & Trueman - 03/06/18

Philip Glass: String Quartet No. 8 
Donnacha Dennehy: Broken Unison 
Dan Trueman: Songs That Are Hard To Sing 

After quite a few concerts that included a lot of tried and true classics, my concert of last Tuesday evening was resolutely focused on contemporary classical music with new compositions by Philip Glass, Donnacha Dennehy and Dan Trueman, who were all in attendance for the occasion, because there is simply no time like the present. Truth be told though, my main reason for being there, beside checking out the new piece by Philip Glass, was taking advantage of the two-for-the-price-of-one opportunity to hear the awesome local ensembles that are the JACK Quartet and So Percussion.
So I happily took my seat among the sold-out crowd in Carnegie Hall’s intimate Zankel Hall at the unusual time of 7 PM, which in fact turned out to be a serendipitous blessing as our second nor’easter in two weeks was slowly but surely approaching the city. And if it meant no time for a pit stop or proper nutrition after a hectic day in the office, so be it.

Although he celebrated his 80th birthday in a packed Stern Auditorium back in January 2017, Carnegie Hall's current Composer-in-Residence Philip Glass is clearly showing no signs of slowing down. What is even more amazing though, is that his recent output has been as fresh and inventive as his younger colleagues’, and at times has even left them in the dust. A case in point is his terrific String Quartet No. 8, which was co-commissioned by Carnegie Hall and had its US premiere on Tuesday. Naturally, having a crack ensemble like the JACK Quartet perform it made the whole experience even more outstanding.
Adroitly combining the quartet’s traditional fast-slow-fast structure with his own ground-breaking minimalist style, Glass has come up with a relatively short but oh so satisfying work that is tightly constructed and overflowing with a whole bunch of appealing ideas. The JACK Quartet effortlessly made it their own, superbly emphasizing the composition’s brilliance and warmth. The evening had decidedly started at the very top, and could logically only go down from there, which it to some degree did.
Irish composer Donnacha Dennehy’s Broken Unison, which was co-commissioned by Carnegie Hall and had its world premiere on Tuesday, had one major asset going for it, and that was the four technically accomplished and endlessly versatile musicians of So Percussion. Their extraordinary dexterity was indeed on full display as they seamlessly moved among marimbas, xylophones, vibraphones and the booming bass drum, and managed to bring the pleasant enough, but ultimately innocuous, 20-minute piece to a whole other level.
Stretching over 45 minutes, American composer and musician Dan Trueman’s Songs That Are Hard To Sing, which was having its New York premiere on Tuesday, was by far the longest piece of the program. Taking his inspiration from songs that he loves but finds hard to sing, Trueman wrote five resolutely deconstructed songs to be played by both ensembles combined. Each song had its own truly enjoyable moments, which resulted essentially from the impressive virtuosity of the eight musicians and the sheer uniqueness of some of the sounds they produced. I, however, could not help but lament that so much prodigious talent was not used for an overall more exciting score. Where was Philip Glass when you needed him?

Monday, March 5, 2018

Anne-Sophie Mutter and Lambert Orkis - Previn, Bach, Brahms & Penderecki - 03/04/18

Previn: The Fifth Season for Violin and Piano 
Bach: Partita No. 2 in D Minor, BWV 1004 
Brahms: Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 2 in A Major, Op. 100 
Penderecki: Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 2

Because all good things have to come to an end at some point, my mini Brahms Festival ended yesterday afternoon with a recital by Anne-Sophie Mutter and her long-time music partner Lambert Orkis in Carnegie Hall’s Stern Auditorium in the company of my friend Vy An. After the three glorious piano trios and the passionate first piano concerto I have heard recently, I was ready to downsize with his beautifully intimate and richly expressive Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 2.
However, no matter how much I was looking forward to hear the expert musicians tackle it, I have to admit that I was even more eager to hear the queen of the violin take on Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D Minor, especially the all-mighty Chaconne. Let's face it, if anybody can climb the Himalaya of the violin repertoire in grand style, that’s her.

The concert opened with the world premiere of André Previn’s Fifth Season for Violin and Piano, which is essentially a 10-minute piece representing an additional season to Vivaldi’s legendary Four Seasons. Commissioned by Anne-Sophie Mutter and Carnegie Hall, it in fact does not have much to do with the Baroque tradition, but its pleasantly imaginative score, in particular the jazzy overtones and dazzling fireworks, did allow the musicians to display their skills and have some fun.
In my wildest dreams, I hear Anne-Sophie Mutter play Bach’s Six Sonatas and Partitas in one concert, but if I have to settle for just one of them, it has to be the Partita in D Minor, of course. Yesterday afternoon, she handled it with her trademark virtuosity for an impressively pristine, assured and vibrant reading of it. The composition’s daunting complexity obviously did not deter her from brilliantly expressing its intense emotional content and life-affirming grandeur. As the audience erupted in applause, Vy An efficiently summed up what everybody was probably thinking by admiringly pointing out: "Elle gère". Mutter had indeed everything under control, and if you did not know why the Chaconne is such a huge deal, this was the ultimate eye-opening experience.
Brahms’ Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 2 is a staple in concert halls, and it is always with the same pleasure that I get to eave-drop in the lively conversation between the two instruments. After Mutter’s fierceness in Bach – and a well-deserve break for all – the duo’s take on Brahms sounded downright understated. Standing on one’s own next to the unreservedly cooperative but naturally formidable Anne-Sophie Mutter has to be a difficult task, even after 18 years and counting of playing together. Nevertheless, Lambert Orkis generally managed to make the piano’s voice heard, and the result oozed plenty of subtle lyricism and temperate eloquence.
Things picked up again with violinist manqué Krysztof Penderecki’s Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 2, which he wrote especially for Mutter. Extending over an eventful half-hour, the work was not as esoteric as its Polish avant-garde pedigree had led me to expect. But there was still plenty of prickly dissonances and tense exchanges within the symmetrical structure that is rigorously organized around the mysterious Nocturno. Mutter and Lambert took everything in stride though, and delivered an infectiously energetic performance of it.

Back on more conventional territory, the dreamy, borderline sentimental encore was Mischa Elman’s arrangement of Schubert’s "Ständchen" from Schwanengesang, D. 957, No. 4. Because when all has been said and done, you can’t go wrong with trying a little tenderness.

Friday, March 2, 2018

New York Philharmonic - Brahms & Prokofiev - 2/28/18

Conductor: Jaap van Zweden 
Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 1 on D Minor, Op. 15 
Yuja Wang: Piano 
Prokofiev: Symphony No. 5 in B-flat Major, Op. 100 

Almost one week after basking in the magic of Brahms’ three landmark piano trios with Ax, Kavakos and Ma at Carnegie Hall, this past Wednesday I headed to David Geffen Hall for Brahms’ no less celebrated first piano concerto with Yuja Wang, Jaap van Zweden and the New York Philharmonic. Because one can simply never hear too much Brahms, especially in such brilliant company.
But the classical music repertoire does not completely revolves around Brahms – or so I’ve heard – and branching out is rarely a bad idea. A case in point was the programmatic pairing of Brahms's expansive concerto with Prokofiev’s slightly shorter Symphony No. 5, a perennially popular piece written to celebrate the triumph of the human spirit during and after World War II. Somehow it sounds more topical today than ever.

Nobody has ever claimed that Brahms did not know how to build suspense, not only by delaying the release of his agonized-over works for years, if not decades, but also by delaying the entrance of the solo instrument in at least his violin concerto and first piano concerto. On the other hand, once they get going, there is nothing stopping them, especially when the soloist is the indomitable Yuja Wang, who naturally packs a mighty force – and a mighty talent – in her diminutive frame.
So it fell on the orchestra and maestro van Zweden to kick start the concerto, which is never an easy task as the music immediately swells into sumptuously Romantic waves that pave the way to its magnificent 50-minute journey, but they did it head-on. What's more, the performance by the young pianist of the score written by the young composer vividly displayed all the passionate intensity and endearing impetuousness of youth. There were some monumental struggles between piano and orchestra, as well as some moments of aching beauty, which all together provided plenty of grandeur and high voltage.
Although we really had to beg for it, the typically generous Miss Wang came back for not one, but two lovely encores. Mendelssohn made a surprise appearance with his Song without Words in F-sharp Minor, Op. 67, No. 2, before we got back to Brahms with his Intermezzo in C-sharp Minor, Op. 117, No. 3.
After intermission, the hall, which had been packed during the first half of the concert, was visibly missing quite a few people, but the ones who stayed were largely rewarded. Prokofiev’s supremely accomplished Symphony No. 5 is as accessible as they come, constantly bursting with attractive melodies and superb lyricism, not to mention some macabre strutting and dark brooding thrown in for good measure. In short, there’s a little bit of everything for everybody in it.
The orchestra was obviously having fun with it, emphasizing the most dramatic passages and happily tossing off the sarcastic jokes. They also made the wise decision not to try to make it sound pretty, but the music sure came out vibrant and engaging, and clearly pleased the audience all the way to the truly exciting grand finale.