and Mahler: Lang Lang, Piano, New York Philharmonic,
Lorin Maazel, Conductor, Avery Fisher Hall, New York
City, 22 and 24. 9. 2005 (BH)
Chopin: Piano Concerto in E minor, Op. 11 (1829-30),
Mahler: Symphony No. 1 in D major (1888; rev.
With all eyes focused on Lang Lang it might be easy
to overlook the musicians of the New York Philharmonic. Anyone who has not lately experienced the orchestra’s
work is perhaps in for a bit of a surprise, since they are playing
at an extraordinarily high level indeed.
While Lorin Maazel continues to generate mixed opinions,
what I heard on Saturday night convinced me that he and the
orchestra are a very good match, and although there are intriguing
concerts coming in the next few months, this particular one
may very well go down as a highlight of 2005.
Much has been written about Lang Lang’s histrionics,
but at least on Saturday night there were no antics in evidence,
just some spectacular pianism.
For another point of view, I also watched the Thursday
night concert televised on PBS’ Live from Lincoln Center,
and there the young pianist did play a bit more to the
cameras – he is not shy about using close-ups. But on Saturday, his demeanor was not distracting
in the least. My theory
about some of his over-emoting is twofold: first, he is one
of many young media-savvy performers who understand the difference
television makes, particularly in its inclusion of close-ups,
and second, perhaps – perhaps – some of what he’s playing
is really too easy for him. He needs to commission a new piece by Wuorinen
or Ferneyhough to fully occupy his restless brain.
So back to this Chopin concerto, which I don’t expect
to hear played as well anytime soon.
The long orchestral introduction (often inexplicably
shortened) telegraphed immediately that Maazel and the orchestra
were going to be more than just underpinning for a prodigy.
Here were majesty, richness, and color, all before Lang
Lang had even played a note.
When he entered, it was with crisp articulation, his
tone floating delightfully above the orchestra’s sensuous textures.
His clarity in the opening Allegro maestoso was
impressive, but just as marvelous was his touching delicacy
in the Romance. By
the time the Rondo arrived, he was occasionally flexing
his fingers, like a racehorse at the gate.
Perhaps he was giving us a preview of his career in twenty
years – the friend with me said he could easily imagine Lang
Lang developing into a conductor.
I’ve heard the Mahler live maybe a dozen times, and
have rarely been as enthralled as in this magnificently detailed
and phrased reading, one that will rank among the top-tier,
anytime, anywhere. If there are any who still doubt Maazel’s rapport
with the orchestra, I would point them to this fresh, joyous
example. Clearly the
musicians love playing with Maazel; this was apparent on Saturday
night, and even more in evidence in reviewing the tape of Thursday.
What came through loud and clear was the voice of
a precocious 27-year-old, eagerly unveiling his first foray
into the symphonic genre – a debut that would change music forever. (A friend with me jokingly imagined the composer
saying, “Hi, here’s my business card!
Call me!”) The
first movement was brimming with birdsong and sunlight, irresistibly
delivered by the Philharmonic with immaculate intonation, precise
phrasing and flat-out passionate playing.
Mahler’s brilliant orchestrations – luxurious strings
on top of squawking trombones, the composer’s peculiar mix of
velvet and acid – never sounded so unusual, yet so right.
And the concert showed that Avery Fisher Hall, while
probably never an asset, isn’t the ogre that some (including
me) have sometimes made it out to be.
Yes, Carnegie Hall helps musicians. Yes, the acoustic of the Concertgebouw helps
Symphony Hall, Disney Hall in Los Angeles, Vienna’s Musikverein
– even Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis – they all make musicians
sound better. If Avery Fisher Hall is reticent in its assistance,
somehow Maazel and the orchestra have figured out how to make
things work more in their favor.
The jaunty, robust second movement only continued
the refreshing blend of the soothing versus the peculiar, qualities
that in 1888 made a musical public sit up and take notice that
here was a new and perhaps disturbingly original voice.
With elegance and scrupulous attention, Maazel always
kept in mind the composer’s markings here, “With powerful movement,
but not too quick,” and the result was as joyous as a romp in
a fountain. In the funereal
third movement, a gorgeous, mournful solo by Eugene Levinson
on bass, followed by Judith Leclair, equally rhapsodic on bassoon,
launched pages notable for the attention to balance. Mahler’s admonition, “without dragging,” was
followed scrupulously, and despite the jolly lightning flashes
of the klezmer interludes, the entire movement seemed as if
a relentless darkness were never far away.
The thunderous final movement galloped along in a
bravura display, with everything in place that one wants, and
nothing that one doesn’t. Indeed,
I can’t imagine what more one would want from this performance
– Maazel delivered it all: polish, recklessness, drama, winsomeness,
abandon. One splendid example was midway, when the brass
delivers the first of several climactic fanfares, except that
this one explodes in a deceptive cadence – one of my favorite
moments in music. With the acuity of a master, Maazel captured
the utter surprise, almost comically well-timed (and demonstrating
that the cutoff is just as crucial as the attack).
What some characterize as “micro-managing” here came
across as expert preparation.
Passage after passage had a polish I haven’t heard this
group do as consistently in years. In the final pages, the enormous horn section
rose up, standing as they poured out the closing restatement
of the theme – an effect some might see as cheesy, but there
was no denying its effect. With the tympani building in crescendo to a
mighty bellow underneath, the ending fairly erupted as Maazel
punched out the final shattering octave-leap blow.
Chemistry, chemistry, chemistry. Savvy concertgoers should browse the season,
choose favorite pieces to revisit, or explore unfamiliar ones
that will probably be shown in the best possible light – and
rejoice in the payoff of a hardworking, reinvigorated New York
Philharmonic. This is world-class musicianship.