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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.


Bruce Hodges

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