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Seen and Heard International Concert Review



Brahms, Carter, Bruch, Kodály: Gil Shaham (violin), New York Philharmonic, Lorin Maazel (conductor), Avery Fisher Hall, New York City, 16.02.2006 (BH)



Brahms: Variations on a Theme by Haydn, Op. 56a (1873)

Carter: Variations for Orchestra (1953-55, rev. 1993)

Bruch: Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor, Op. 26 (1864-67)

Kodály: Galántai tánkok (Dances of Galánta; 1933)



In a very well-considered program, the first half contained two ideas of variations, one conceived almost exactly eighty years before the other, and both penned at significant moments in each composer’s development.  Brahms wrote his when he was 40, and it was his first piece for full orchestra.  Carter began his when he was 45, and the result is generally considered the beginning of the complex style for which he is best known.  Even the lengths are somewhat the same: Brahms has an opening chorale followed by eight variations and a finale; Carter begins with an andante theme leading into nine, before his allegro molto ending.  But while Brahms is orderly, yet with dramatic contrasts, Carter’s variations seem like pent-up structures that have been waiting all day to joyfully escape and bump up against each other.

The Brahms was sturdily done, but Lorin Maazel and the orchestra seemed to hit their stride more in the Carter.  Using a score for the first time that I can remember in months, Maazel guided the Philharmonic with typical precision and elegance.  (He did the first performance of this piece with the orchestra in 1972.)  At the conclusion, the applause was somewhat tepid at first, until the 97-year-old composer came out from the wings and slowly walked to the podium while the volume level increased.

It would have been interesting to place a video feed directly above Gil Shaham while he tackled the Bruch Violin Concerto No. 1, to better observe his body language.  (He may have inherited some kind of Fred Astaire gene.)  Although the first desk of violins was moved back a few feet to give him plenty of room, he nevertheless once almost collided with the concertmaster.  Shaham was easily the most physical violinist I’ve seen in a long time, hurling himself into the part, and after finishing each phrase, turned to face Maazel with a beaming look.  Bruch’s sometimes stormy, all-out showy score demands a lot, and Shaham brought expressiveness with a huge tone that rode easily above the large orchestral contingent.

Kodály’s feverish Dances of Galánta let the superb Stanley Drucker show a bit of his clarinet chops (and he received a nice solo bow at the close).  The rest of the orchestra was percolating mightily, but for some reason, although I could see the players working, working, working, the sound wasn’t commensurate with both the number of musicians and effort they were expending – much frenzy, but a curiously less frenzied result.  Perhaps the Avery Fisher Hall acoustic chose this occasion to rear its mysterious, sometimes exasperating head, but it was notable because on most occasions I’ve heard recently, Maazel has developed some strategy to neutralize it.  Most in the large audience didn’t seem to mind, though, and gave him and the players the adulation they deserved.



Bruce Hodges






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