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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Concert Review: Never A Dull Moment

Pianist Paul Lewis makes his Philharmonic debut.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Christoph von Dohnányi. Photo © Fotostudio Heinreich
courtesy HarrisonParrott
When the New York Philharmonic programs a Brahms concerto (the No. 1) and a Schumann symphony (the No. 2) under the baton of the venerable Christoph von Dohnányi, the expectation is for a convivial, slightly stuffy evening of high-toned "classical" music with none of the atonality and modernism that has jarred conservative listeners for the last 100 years. However, last night's performance was full of surprises.

Thursday night's concert at Avery Fisher Hall was the first of four pairing Mr. Dohnányi with British pianist Paul Lewis. Mr. Lewis has made waves with his iconoclastic performances and recordings of Beethoven's piano sonatas. For his Philharmonic debut, the pianist chose Brahms' mighty Piano Concerto No. 1, a massive work that cemented the younger composer's reputation as heir to Beethoven's legacy.

The stentorian opening was crisp. The orchestral passage (where Brahms lays out his main thematic ideas) glowed with warmth and detail as Mr. Dohnányi strove for clarity from woodwinds and strings. However, when Mr. Lewis made his entry, his playing sounded pensive and curiously muted, with none of the sturm und drang that one associates with this bold concerto. As the piano part developed and the orchestra responded, the (composer-designed) designed fusion between the two musical forces did not quite work. Mr. Dohnányi was bold and aggressive, but Mr. Lewis sounded subdued, and even sublimated by the orchestral forces. In the long solo passages, he relied heavily on the sustain pedal, blurring the notes.

The performance improved considerably in the next two movements. Mr. Lewis seemed more at home in the central slow movement, playing the winding, dreamy piano line with sweetness and sentiment. The Rondo was thrilling, with the payoff coming in the very long cadenza late in the movement. Here, unaccompanied by the orchetra, Mr. Lewis delivered first-class playing, fleet of fingers and fearless in its execution. He was echoed by equally accomplished accompaniment, and pianist and orchestra finished this very long concerto in stirring fashion.

Schumann's Second Symphony is one of his most unconventional and personal, written as the composer grappled with phobias and inner demons. The work follows a fairly conventional musical structure, but Schumann develops each section as if it were a chapter in a grand Romantic adventure story. There is despair, false hope, adversity and ultimately a brassy affirmation at the end of the final Allegro.

Here, the Philharmonic forces responded adroitly to Mr. Dohnányi's leadership, as the conductor drew clean, precise textures from the strings, who alternated between lyric flights of sound and complicated fugato playing that can give any conductor headaches. The narrative flow of the first movement was driven easily by Mr. Dohnányi, who showed superb rapport with the orchestra as he  brought Schumann's ideas out in bold colors.

The Scherzo featured big-shouldered, muscular dance rhythms, flanking a Trio that contains some of Schumann's prettiest, most sensitive orchestral writing. But that was only preparation for the soul-searching expanse of the Adagio, a simple, repeated melody that paused repeatedly at the edge of a personal abyss, expressed in chromatic chords that prophesy Wagner. The finale was simply a triumph, with Mr. Dohnányi shaking his shoulders to drive the repeated rhythm and lifting his baton to cue noble flourishes of trumpet and horn. Like Schumann himself, Mr. Dohnányi and the Philharmonic had triumphed despite the odds.

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