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Sunday, January 23, 2011

Concert Review: Old School Brahms and Dvořák

Radu Lupu.
The venerable Christoph von Dohnányi capped his two-week stand at the New York Philharmonic with Saturday night's concert, featuring Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 1, appealingly paired with Dvořák's Symphony No. 8. The Brahms concerto featured soloist Radu Lupu, a Romanian pianist who specializes in Romantic repertoire.

Mr. Dohnányi rearranged the Philharmonic for this concert, positioning the basses and cellos on stage right--the better to blend the sound with Mr. Lupu's piano. The new seating arrangement did not adversely affect the musicians, who played Brahms' long orchestral introduction to the concerto, tearing into the five-chord opening sequence with a muscular energy.

Mr. Lupu's entrance was quiet, almost subdued. He played with old-world elegance, using a light touch and fluid legato that recalled Mozart. His piano integrated smoothly with conductor and orchestra, echoing and commenting through the development, before breaking out for a lengthy, eloquent passage: a soliloquy in notes without the benefit of orchestral accompaniment. It ascended to a starry height before crashing back to earth amidst the recapitulation of the opening theme.

The best playing of the night came in the soulful slow movement, a work that cements Brahms' reputation as the heir to Beethoven. This Adagio explores the same cosmic territory as the slow movement of the Ninth, adorned with a ruminative piano part that only adds to its profound beauty. By contrast, the final Rondo was much more athletic, as pianist and orchestra charged home to the final resolution of the opening theme.

Dvořák's Eighth resounds with military fanfares, bird-calls and a boundless enthusiasm that markshis best work. The Eighth is one of his most famous symphonies, coming right before Dvořák's two year sojourn in America and subsequent change in style. It is a paean to life and nature, expressed through scenes from Bohemia's forests. The second movement, with its bird-call flute solos and lengthy violin solo, is one of the composer's most joyous, and featured fine playing from the Philharmonic soloists.

Mr. Dohnányi's interpretation lacked that last sense of gut-wrenching Bohemian rhapsody. However, this was four movements of honest, powerful music-making infused with a welcome energy. The Philharmonic's brass were at their best in the final movement, bursting forth into the main theme with a Mahlerian enthusiasm. The conductor kept a firm grip on the tempo through the final Rondo, which includes an impressive fugue that may surprise listeners unfamiliar with Dvořák's contrapuntal skill. As the brass returned to blast through the final pages, the Eighth thundered to a close in a celebration of life.

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