Seen and Heard
International Concert Review
Brahms: Piano Concerto
No. 2 in B-flat major, Op. 83 (1881), Brahms: Symphony
No. 4 in E minor, Op. 98 (1885), Mikhail Pletnev (Piano), Gewandhaus
Orchestra of Leipzig, Herbert Blomstedt, Conductor, Avery Fisher Hall,
New York City, October 19, 2004 (BH)
For connoisseurs of orchestras, the distinctive timbres
of the Gewandhaus have secured their place in the musical minds of
many. Before last night’s concert, I hadn’t heard them
live in many years, and welcomed the chance to renew the acquaintance,
in repertoire that they must know in their sleep. With the distinguished
Herbert Blomstedt at the helm, they present an equally distinguished
face, the entire group entering from the side doors just a few minutes
before they begin playing, and standing, smiling and facing the audience
until the entire group is onstage – a charming procedure in
a world of vanished orchestral rituals.
Mikhail Pletnev offered a curiously subdued Brahms' Second Piano
Concerto. While I admired his playing (as I admire his conducting),
this didn’t seem to have what I hear as the typical Pletnev
spark. It wasn’t bad, by any means, but occasionally Blomstedt’s
magisterial approach seemed at odds with what the perhaps more extroverted
pianist wanted to do. In at least one entrance, there seemed to be
some disagreement about the tempo, and some of the phrasing choices
just puzzled me. Overall, the result seemed a bit “some of each,
but the best of neither” – pleasant, but perhaps without
the emotional impact that a performance of this masterpiece can have.
Nevertheless, there is no doubt that Pletnev continues to be one of
the world’s great artists, and always thinking about the music,
and the applause was generous as he returned for curtain calls. At
the conclusion, Blomstedt summoned the orchestra’s principal
cellist, Christian Giger, to the front of the stage for a warm ovation
as well, for his solo in the slow movement.
In Robert Markow’s program notes for the Fourth Symphony,
he refers to the first movement’s opening with “a gesture
that suggests the work has been in progress for some time” –
what a lovely idea. It was a joy to hear this piece done with such
vigor and élan, if not absolute instrumental perfection. But
the latter didn’t seem to matter when the musicians were throwing
themselves into the score with such passion.
However, as peacefully as the symphony opens, the dark clouds begin
gathering very quickly, and the orchestra responded with fairly fierce
attacks, with the strings especially, really digging in. The haunting
second movement, with its lilting rhythms and gradually unfolding
harmonies, was sensitively handled, as was the final Allegro energico
e passionato, with Blomstedt making the central idyllic section
sound far away from the movement’s tempestuous outer storms.
This orchestra has a rich, slightly sinewy sound that many listeners
could probably identify in a blind test. In a world that either values
or doesn’t mind a cookie-cutter orchestral sound, the Gewandhaus
almost seems like a throwback to an earlier time, and this is praise.
The group presented a dashing, sensuous encore: Brahms’ Hungarian
Dance No. 1, whose whirling measures ended with a firmly planted,
delicious final chord that had the audience clapping for more.
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