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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, October 2, 2015

Concert Review: A Covey of Concertos

The New York Philharmonic plays Brahms and Marc Neikrug.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
A man and his instrument: Emanuel Ax at the piano.
The early weeks of this young New York Philharmonic season are heavily focused on the concerto, that peculiar yet popular form that pits a solo artist against an orchestra in a struggle of will and ability. This week’s program featured two pieces by Johannes Brahms (the Tragic Overture and the Second Piano Concerto) flanking the world premiere of a new work (commissioned by the Philharmonic in 2014) by contemporary composer Marc Neikrug.

It is not known what tragedy Brahms had in mind when he wrote the Tragic Overture, although it is speculated that it was intended as a curtain-raiser for a production of Goethe’s Faust. Taken as pure music, it is compelling. Alan Gilbert drew rich, dark tone from the brass, helped by ringing, noble horn-calls. He emphasized the unusual combination of voicings in the woodwinds and those thick, chromatic “Brahms chords” that so interested Schoenberg. The intensity and density of the composer’s vision shone through even as the work moved briskly to its denouement.

Mr. Neikrug’s piece was the Canta-Concerto, a four-movement work pitting mezzo Sasha Cooke against an expanded orchestra. The singer was confined to working without text, delivering an elaborate, through-composed vocal line that dived and fluttered below and above the elaborate orchestration. The effect of the driving first movement was not unlike hearing an opera sung in an unfamiliar language without titles, especially as Mr. Neikrug’s use of chromatic strings and winds to support the voice recalled the stage music of Richard Strauss and Leoš Janáček

The later movements were less conventional. A short, sharp shock of a scherzo brought five percussionists (counting the timpani) to bear against the vocal line. The slow movement emphasized Ms. Cooke’s contribution, a cradle song in baby-talk that got more and more distressed. the fast, jazzy finale seemed to let down the rest of the work, although Ms. Cooke's agile performance provided certain thrills.

Although Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto is one of the great heights achieved by the romantic piano concerto in the nineteenth century, it is a mountain that offers the listener a relatively easy climb up its winding paths. That journey is considerably more difficult for the solo pianist, who must subsume himself into the orchestra at times while executing feats of dexterity that are almost all devoted to serving the structure of the work as a whole.

Happily, the pianist here was Emmanuel Ax, a genial artist who occupies an honorary spot on the roster of the New York Philhamonic. This collaboration paid dividends from the first entry of the four horns and solo piano, creating a close harmony that made this performance at once entertaining and deeply engrossing. It was helped by strong contributions from the principal winds and the string players, who alternated voices smoothly with the piano part over the course of the first two movements.

Mr. Ax brought his most dulcet and lyric playing to the slow movement, emphasizing Brahms’ gift for creating wordless songs for his favorite instrument. Here, the pianist was joined in his solos by principal cellist Carter Brey whose own instrument’s warm and ,elodious voice made this movement into a lovely duet. The hop-and-skip finale was like an elaborate game of jump-rope between pianist and orchestra, racing through the changes and ritornellos with vigorous speed and bringing the work to a warm and joyous close.

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