New York Philharmonic Brahms Cycle/Lorin Maazel – 5

Symphony No.3 in F, Op.90
Symphony No.4 in E minor, Op.98

New York Philharmonic Orchestra
Lorin Maazel

Reviewed by: David M. Rice

Reviewed: 31 May, 2007
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, New York City

This penultimate programme in the New York Philharmonic’s “Brahms the Romantic” festival completed music director Lorin Maazel’s traversal of the four symphonies. This performance did not, however, measure up to the orchestra’s performances in April of the first two symphonies.

In the Third Symphony, Maazel was more liberal in his use of rubato than in any of the other three. This became apparent early in the Allegro con brio opening movement, as Maazel interpolated (or exaggerated) ritardandos and accelerandos, giving the music a stop-go feeling at many points, and took similar liberties with dynamics as well. The opening of the symphony was a bit ragged, with the horns sounding a bit off (they did much better as the work went on) and the timpani being overemphasised and thus out of balance with the rest of the orchestra in the opening bars. Apart from that, the orchestra did well in bringing out Brahms’s lush sonorities. The first movement offered many opportunities for the wind principals – Robert Langevin (flute), Liang Wang (oboe), Stanley Drucker (clarinet) and Judith LeClair (bassoon) – to excel, and they did so, with Drucker’s solos coming through particularly well. The winds and horns were prominent and excellent in the Andante, which was beautifully played even though Maazel remained disinclined to let the music flow at an even pace.

In the third movement, Maazel’s tempo and phrasing made the main theme’s longest-sustained note seem even longer than written, as if stretching an elastic band almost to its breaking point. This approach emphasised the theme’s plaintive quality, particularly when played on the horn and oboe, but it dragged the movement down. There was plenty of propulsion in the Allegro finale, however, beginning with its dark opening theme on bassoons and strings and continuing through much of the movement, which featured strong contributions from the Philharmonic’s strings, horns and brass. In one noteworthy passage, a secondary theme on the horns and cellos was accompanied by delicate triplet figures in the first violins and violas. Later, the strings played an extended and complex succession of rapid figures to accompany clarion calls from the trumpets, trombones and horns. A reprise of the opening theme, in somewhat varied form, first on muted violas and then on solo clarinet, bassoon and oboe, ushered in an extended slow and soft passage with shimmering violins and violas accompanying a wind and brass choir. Unlike Brahms’s other three symphonies, there are no dramatic, fortissimo final chords to end the Third. Instead, pp strings reprised the principal theme of the symphony’s opening movement, concluding with two pizzicato chords as the winds and brass played a long-sustained pp final chord.

At the outset of the Fourth Symphony, the Philharmonic’s strings expressively sighed the alternately falling and rising figures that begins the opening Allegro non troppo – with Maazel’s tempo definitely leaning toward the ‘non troppo’. The pace quickened a bit with the introduction of the second subject, first with the deep sonority of horns and cellos and then higher on the violins, over broken rhythmic figures in the winds and remaining strings. As the music moved back and forth between gentler and more vigorous passages, Maazel’s instincts for adjusting tempos and dynamics seemed to find a salutary mix, enabling the various instruments to shine through to good effect, and allowing the movement to evolve in a satisfying way, building to its stirring climax dominated by the ff rolls and beats of the timpani.

In the opening section of the Andante moderato second movement, the horns and winds, accompanied by pizzicato strings, introduced and developed the gentle theme that the bowed violins then carried to soaring heights. After the winds and strings exchanged rapid interjections, the first violins seemed to shine as they played a new subject whilst the lower strings and bassoon provided counterpoint with a variant on the principal theme. The strings were again beautifully expressive in a passage that ushered in the serene concluding section of the Andante, with the opening theme returning on the horns to bring the movement to a close.

The orchestra’s outstanding playing continued in the Allegro giocoso scherzo. Here, repeated figures on the trumpets, horns and timpani were interjected between the two parts of the genial opening theme, with the triangle soon chiming in to add even more sparkle. Another delightful moment came halfway through the movement, as the winds joined to play the opening theme pianissimo, and a slow passage featuring solo bassoon and horn was followed moments later by the explosive return of the original tempo and theme in the full orchestra (though only marked f in the score). Later on, the trumpets, horns and timpani once again combined to cap off the movement’s final chords with a glorious touch.

The Allegro energico e passionato finale followed, without a pause, with the pervasive eight-measure passacaglia theme on which the 30 Variations that comprise the movement are based. Although Brahms was adept at composing Variations, this movement lacks the sense of coherence and direction that a symphonic movement ideally should have. However appealing the individual sections – highlights included a lively flute solo, several passages for horns, and some fine playing by the strings and by the trombones (which had not been used in the first three movements) – their episodic nature gave the movement an uneven quality. Thus, despite Maazel’s efforts and excellent playing by the orchestra, the movement came off as anticlimactic, dulling to a degree what was otherwise an incisive and engaging performance.

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