New York Philharmonic Brahms Cycle/Lorin Maazel – 1

Serenade No.1 in D, Op.11
Piano Concerto No.1 in D minor, Op.15

Emanuel Ax (piano)

New York Philharmonic
Lorin Maazel

Reviewed by: David M. Rice

Reviewed: 15 February, 2007
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, New York City

This was the first of six programmes in the New York Philharmonic’s “Brahms the Romantic” festival, in which music director Lorin Maazel will lead the orchestra in all of the composer’s orchestral works, including the concertos and “Ein deutsches Requiem”. This and the succeeding programme, to be performed on February 17 and 20, feature the two serenades and Emanuel Ax’s interpretations of the two piano concertos. The remaining programmes are scheduled from mid-April to early June.

The concert opened with the seldom-performed Serenade No.1, the composition of which evolved over a period of some three years when Brahms was in his mid-twenties. Originally conceiving the piece as a chamber work, Brahms subsequently scored it for chamber orchestra and finally for a ‘classical’ orchestra – an ensemble roughly equivalent to those employed in Beethoven’s first four symphonies. The two serenades, Brahms’s first significant orchestral ventures, preceded the first of his four symphonies by some 17 years, and no more than hinted at the grandeur and complexity of those future masterpieces.

The six movements of the First Serenade include genial opening and closing movements, two scherzos, a slow movement, and another comprised of a pair of minuets. In the opening Allegro moderato, the Philharmonic’s winds were prominent, from a clarinet solo at the beginning to a closing soft flute solo, with much more in between from those instruments as well as from the four horns and, at times, trumpets and timpani. The strings had a central role in the ensuing scherzo, playing a dark waltz theme, and the winds returned to prominence in the Adagio, with notable flute and horn solos.

The fourth movement consists of two Minuet sections, the first for winds, with clarinet and chattering bassoons, and the second featuring the strings, with the first violins carrying the theme until a reprise by the winds. This was something of a change from the more traditional classical pattern of a wind trio between string-dominated outer minuet segments. The second scherzo, the shortest movement of this work, is based almost entirely on a horn motif, with the rest of the ensemble accompanying and highlighting it. In the last movement, a lively rondo, the flutes, creating a glistening effect, accent the lyrical strings. The horns play a theme ending with an extended trill, and the entire work ends with a tutti accented by flourishes from the trumpets and timpani.

Both the individual movements of the serenade and the work as a whole inevitably lacked the complexity and tensions characteristic of a well-composed symphony. And although, under Maazel, the orchestra played very well, making for enjoyable listening, the performance never conveyed the sparkle that could have kept it from feeling like a symphony drained of its sturm und drang.

But this was more than made up for in the D minor Piano Concerto. Composed at about the same time as the serenades, this concerto was Brahms’s first great orchestral work.

Ax gave an electrifying performance, playing with vigour and total assurance. Right from the piano’s first entry, following the lengthy orchestral introduction, his playing was incisive and powerful. In the first extended solo piano interlude, Ax expressively elaborated the movement’s second theme, and the ensuing passage, with solos by flute, clarinet and oboe, and two bassoons providing the bass line, was particularly beautiful. Following a leaping passage by several of the first violins, Ax played a duet with solo horn, and then suddenly shattered the calm of a gentle tutti passage with ff double-octaves that ignited the emotional atmosphere. The energy level of his playing increased even further as the movement progressed, making the reprise of the piano’s original entrance even more intense. Ax was by no means one-dimensional in his interpretation, finding delicacy and intimacy in the softer passages whilst keeping the tension lurking just beneath the surface, waiting to finally break out into the open in the coda that brought the movement to a dramatic finish.

The Adagio was rapturous, as Maazel kept in balance Ax’s lyrical piano, fine solo and ensemble work by the winds and horns – beginning with the opening bassoon solo, and excellent playing by the strings. Ax deftly negotiated Brahms’s complex rhythmic patterns, elevating the piano’s melodic line to ethereal heights at some points, but playing a subsidiary role at others, as where he played delicate arpeggios beneath an oboe solo and a clarinet-bassoon duet and later, in an even more extended passage, an entire ensemble of principal winds and horn. The movement ended even more softly than it began, with Ax’s lovingly played cadenza fading away, leaving it to the orchestra to bring the movement to its quiet conclusion.

Ax and Maazel plunged into the stirring rondo with abandon, adopting what seemed as brisk a tempo as warranted by its Allegro non troppo marking. They drove the music relentlessly through the piano’s variations and ornamentation of the rondo theme, including extended passages where the sonorous cellos provided its sole accompaniment, extensive scales and runs which Ax played with apparent ease, an engaging fugato passage well played by the Philharmonic’s strings, and two cadenzas which Ax rattled off with great virtuosity, the second leading directly into the coda.

This concert began pleasantly with the First Serenade and ended thrillingly with the D minor Piano Concerto. How well it, together with the other festival concerts to come, will make the case for “Brahms the Romantic” remains to be seen – and heard.

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