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Thursday, October 2, 2014

Concert Review: The End is the Beginning

Anne-Sophie Mutter and the Berlin Philharmonic open Carnegie Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Anne-Sophie Mutter, 2014-15 Carnegie Hall Perspectives Artist
played at opening night. Photo by Harald Hoffmann for Deutsche Grammophon.
© 2014 Universal Classics/UMG
The opening of Carnegie Hall is always a festive occasion, with red carpet laid down under the famous portico on W. 57th St., a black-tie crowd and this year, a gala dinner on the Hall's new grassy roof deck. However, the main attraction this year was that the season was opening with the Berlin Philharmonic, in town for a week of concerts, a residency that will launch not only this year's Carnegie season but Lincoln Center's own White Light Festival next week.

For the first of their four Carnegie concerts, the Berliners and music director Sir Simon Rattle chose to open with a Rachmaninoff rarity: the Symphonic Dances. Composed on Long Island a year before the great Russian composer's death, these pieces stand at the end of the Romantic tradition in Russian music, three dense, tripartite movements that require a large orchestra to play on its toes.

The opening movement featured a thick impasto of woodwinds and brass contrasting with agile strings and percussion. It culminated in a blazing recapitulation of the opening theme. The opening movement (featuring a saxophone solo that almost sounded like a vocalise) was delicate, the sax theme caressing and moving before yielding to a fast finale. The second movement that followed was downright spooky, with the expanded woodwind section evoking the fluttering wings of unseen creatures.

The finale, aggressive and complex with funereal bells and a Dies irae (echoes of the Symphonie fantastique!) was another opportunity to display the muscle of this great orchestra at the most accelerated tempo yet. The strings capered against the funeral tolling of the bells, executing nimble turns of phrase as the whole movement built to a thundering, exhilerating finish.

Over her long career, Anne-Sophie Mutter has been linked to the Berlin Philharmonic. But her appearance with the orchestra Wednesday night was the violinist's first collaboration with the Berliners on this side of the Atlantic. Ms. Mutter, who is one of Carnegie Hall's 2014-15 Perspectives artists, joined the orchestra for a work that rests squarely in her wheelhouse, the First Violin Concerto by Max Bruch.

The German violinist (and protege of the legendary Berlin music director Herbert von Karajan) recorded the Bruch First way back in 1981, when compact discs were a new technology and she was just 18 years old. Her interpretation of this virtuoso work has evolved and matured over the decades.  Indeed, this was one of the most soulful and heart-felt performances in recent memory by this superstar violinist, who moved and grooved with the playing of the accompaniment when she wasn't soaring through the cadenzas that hold the opening movement together with gleaming thread.

Ms. Mutter drew magical, dulcet tones from her fiddle in the central slow movement, reminding the listener of the delicacy and inspiration that can be found in the pages of this concert standard. At the quick transition to the final movement, the music seemed to breathe again, kicking off its heels in a wild folk dance that allowed opportunities for soloist and conductor to each exercise their talents. This was not the neatest performance from Mr. Rattle, but the thrilling exchange between violin and orchestra made this movement a fascinating listen.

The concert, played without intermission (mostly to ensure time for the big scheduled party on the roof) ended with the three final sections of Stravinsky's Firebird, the big ballet that launched this most cosmopolitan of composers on an unsuspecting international scene. The big, burly motifs of Kaschei's Dance growled and roared, with the deep brasses and percussion jostling for attention. The delicate sleep themes (with the unique dialogue for contrabassoons) were appropriately hypnotic, played very slowly with great control by the Berlin winds. The famous final fanfare (with its descending horn theme triggering a riot of orchestral merry-making) blazed with vivid life. The playing, while brilliant was just a taste; tonight's concert at Carnegie Hall will feature the full Firebird.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.