New York Philharmonic Brahms Cycle/Lorin Maazel – 2

Serenade No.2 in A, Op.16
Piano Concerto No.2 in B flat, Op.83

Emanuel Ax (piano)

New York Philharmonic
Lorin Maazel

Reviewed by: David M. Rice

Reviewed: 20 February, 2007
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, New York City

Lorin Maazel led the New York Philharmonic in the second programme of its “Brahms the Romantic” festival, completing the orchestra’s traversal of the orchestral serenades and piano concertos with the composer’s second efforts in both genres. Emanuel Ax was again the piano soloist.

The Second Serenade, although composed soon after the First and the D minor First Piano Concerto, when Brahms was in his mid-twenties, is a work quite different from both of those preceding ones. Unlike the First Serenade, which evolved in concept from a chamber piece to a work for what Brahms termed a “large orchestra”, the Second was conceived from the outset as a work for a “small orchestra” – one without violins, trumpets or timpani, and with only two horns (rather than four as in the First Serenade). This reduced and low-pitched ensemble proved perfectly suited to the lilt and charm of the serenade form, whereas the First Serenade’s larger orchestra seems more awkward and constrained from expressing the sort of powerful emotional outbursts that Brahms was already unleashing in the D minor Piano Concerto, but would take another 17 years to embody in his First Symphony.

The seating of the viola section where the first violins normally reside gave regulars in the audience a rare glimpse of the right profiles of principal Cynthia Phelps and her fellow Philharmonic violists, and an equally rare deep and rich orchestral sonority, produced by Brahms’s use of the viola as the principal melody string instrument. Maazel’s carefully measured tempos and generous use of rubato captured well the romantic charm and delicacy of the music. Brahms’s orchestration gives the wind section a prominent role, beginning with the passage that opens the Allegro moderato first movement. Maazel and the orchestra maintained a genial atmosphere, contrasting the staccato effect of pizzicato strings with outstanding solo and ensemble work by the winds and horns. The brief scherzo was spirited yet charming, as string chords accented the melodic line of the rollicking woodwinds.

In the atmospheric middle movement, Adagio non troppo, the solo flute, horn, clarinet and, finally, the oboe, each figured prominently above a recurring bass ostinato in the strings. In the Quasi Menuetto, the strings first provided the bass line for the wind ensemble and then, as the tempo quickened in the contrasting trio section, played pizzicato to accompany the solo flute and oboe. The winds and strings introduced the lively rondo theme of the concluding Allegro, which was echoed in turn by the oboe, horn, clarinet and violas. High-register glitter was provided by the piccolo throughout the movement and accented the concluding cadence.

Emanuel Ax’s performance of the B flat Second Concerto was, if anything, even more exciting than his brilliant rendition of the D minor one a few days earlier. Following the Allegro non troppo’s opening horn motif, beautifully played by principal horn Philip Myers, and a brief passage by the winds and strings, Ax’s extended solo immediately established both the delicacy and the power of the piano in the development of that theme, a duality that persisted as the movement progressed, thanks to his generous but appropriate use of rubato in shaping his phrasing. The first big tutti was marvellous, virtually rocking the hall. Ax navigated his way skilfully through Brahms’s technical challenges: fluid arpeggios, scales and runs, delicate trills, and powerful and dramatic chords and rhythmic outbursts. Meanwhile, the orchestra, under Maazel’s direction, was equally impressive, providing Ax with a virtually perfect accompaniment. Orchestral passages, varying from graceful to thunderous as the occasion demanded, were so invariably lively and natural that Ax seemed captivated by them, swaying in time to the orchestra’s playing.

The interplay between Ax and the orchestra was seamless, this being especially apparent in the second movement Allegro appassionato, where the piano and the syncopated strings maintained just the right balance as they alternately accented the melody. The strings were also exemplary in the contrapuntal passage that began the ‘largamente’ section, as were the winds and then the horns, accompanying the piano into and through the movement’s agitato conclusion.

Principal cellist Carter Brey opened the Andante with a rich and lyrical rendition of the extended solo that establishes the movement’s distinct character even before the piano’s delicate entrance. Ax’s playing in this movement demonstrated his affinity for Brahms’s piano music, bringing out multiple inner voices as he explored the introspective and complex subject matter, teaming first with principal clarinet Stanley Drucker and then with Brey as the cello returned to accompany the piano and cap off the movement with a reprise of its opening solo theme, savouring the long-held final note.

Ax launched the finale, Allegretto grazioso, with a sparkling attack, seeming to join the winds in a merry, often syncopated, dance through much of the movement, with notable solos by Drucker, principal flute Robert Langevin and principal oboe Liang Wang. Ax varied the mood as tempos slowed and quickened in mid-movement, and then got swept up in the electricity of the fast-paced coda, bringing the concerto to an exciting conclusion.

With performances of the serenades and piano concertos completed, the image of “Brahms the Romantic” has begun to take shape. Indeed, these concerts presented two rather distinct aspects of Brahms’s romanticism. In the Second Serenade, the Adagio of the First Concerto and especially the Andante of the Second, Brahms evokes genial and tender “romantic” emotions, and both concertos stand as milestones of the “Romantic” movement, of which Brahms was a major exponent and successor to the mantle of Beethoven. The latter aspect is to be explored in greater depth in the remaining programmes, which are scheduled from mid-April to early June.

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