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Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Concert Review: Diamonds on Velvet

Rudolf Buchbinder joins the Vienna Philharmonic.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Rudolf Buchbinder played Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 1 at Carnegie Hall on Friday night.
Photo by Marco Borggreve.
In The Holcroft Covenant, a thoroughly mediocre 1980s film version of a Robert Ludlum novel, there is an apt description of everyday concert programming. In this Michael Caine vehicle, the main characters attend a rehearsal at the Philharmonie, the home building of the Berlin Philharmonic. They are invited to the concert that evening by the conductor:

"So, do come tonight. We will have some nice, safe Brahms, some mildly adventurous Bartók, and the Schubert that you just heard. And if you fall asleep, do not worry, for Schubert taken subliminally is better than no Schubert at all."

That phrase applies aptly to the Vienna Philharmonic's second night at Carnegie Hall this season, under the steady if sometimes unexciting leadership of Franz Welser-Möst. The program was indeed Brahms, Schubert and Bartók, with the added benefit of virtuoso pianist Rudolf Buchbinder, a scholarly musician who remains a somewhat infrequent visitor to these shores.

Mr. Buchbinder played the solo part in the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1, the earliest of that German composer's major works to enter the permanent repertory. First though, Mr. Welser-Möst stirred the waters, creating a dark, thick and muddy texture in the Viennese strings. His intent became clear, however when the piano entered, its tones sparkling against the crushed brown velvet of the accompaniment. This welcome contrast continued in the lyric second movement, as the piano moved placidly through Brahms' elegant phrases, with the orchestra sighing softly in response.

Things picked up with the finale, taken at a medium pace but featuring the crisp attack of Mr. Buchbinder's fingers. This extended Rondo featured opportunities for Mr. Buchbinder's crisp, if somewhat academic technique to move to the fore, with Mr. Welser-Möst and the Vienna forces offering alert support in the form of Brahms' thick, heavy counterpoint as the theme came back around to its start. Mr. Buchbinder then surprised the assembled with an elegant and very Viennese encore: Friedrich Cziffra's Concert Paraphrase on themes from the Johann Strauss operetta Die Fledermaus.

It was then time for the Schubert, with the two movements of the Eighth ("Unfinished") Symphony given an appropriately grave reading by Mr. Welser-Möst. The Vienna players love this music and the caress given to the well-known second theme by the cellos was only the beginning of a traversal that spoke simply and yet with the wisdom of long experience. The second movement wept too, with its three main themes clearly stated and worked out in perfect musical logic. Schubert's torso of a work never sounded more complete.

And then it was adventure time, as Mr. Welser-Möst tackled the bloody ballet suite from Béla Bartók's The Miraculous Mandarin. This lurid score still has the power to horrify and shock through the use of jagged dissonance, off-the-beat rhythms and an arsenal of percussion and brass. And yet, playing the Suite is the safe option, as it misses out on the horrifying final scene of the ballet when the Mandarin, victim of two vicious thugs who use a prostitute to lure men to their lair, simply refuses to stay dead. The horns and solo clarinet impressed here, as did the growl of tuba and trombones.

It is a hallmark of the Vienna Philharmonic's visits to Carnegie Hall that the orchestra refuses to leave its audience on a down note. After Bartók's foray into dissonance and century-old orchestral innovation sent some of the more timid attendees fleeing, those who stayed were rewarded. The final encore was Johann Strauss' Frauenherz, an elegant polka-mazurka that whirled the audience off to their beds, the horrors of Bartók's ballet quickly forgotten. So much for adventure. 

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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.