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Seen and Heard Interntaional Concert Review


Chopin 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. 1893-1906)



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 musicians.  Boston’s 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.



Bruce Hodges






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