New York Philharmonic/Maazel in Paris

Brahms
Symphony No.1 in C minor, Op.68
Stravinsky
Song of the Nightingale
Ravel
Daphnis et Chloé – Suite No.2

New York Philharmonic Orchestra
Lorin Maazel


Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 16 May, 2007
Venue: Théâtre des Champs-Élyssés, Paris

On its tour of Europe (which began on 3 May in Warsaw and ends on the 18th in Luxembourg) and taking in Budapest, Cologne, Vienna and other cities, the New York Philharmonic and music director Lorin Maazel arrived in Paris. London was on the schedule until it was known that the Royal Festival Hall would not be re-opened in time (11 June for that)!

The Théâtre des Champs-Élysées was where Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring had its notorious premiere in 1913. Today the theatre, fully active as a concert- and opera-giving venue, retains décor from that time as part of a somewhat surreal mix of the old and the new. Organ pipes are easily spied, but the console remained a mystery as to its location! The stage area is the ‘new’, quite deep front to back. The acoustic shell is mostly constructed from wood and uses moveable acoustic-changing slats in the ceiling. Those of us sitting in the stalls are offered a comfortable stand-alone, small-throne-like chair, the steep tiers of the upper seating creating a looking-down effect for the rest of the audience – rather like a crowd viewing the gladiators in the arena! Intimate yet spacious at one and the same time.

With more than 20 minutes to go before the concert’s start-time, the platform area, seemingly with a fixed stone floor, yet presumably moveable to accommodate a staged opera and an orchestra pit, was already packed with Philharmonic players creating an audible melee of individual practising. The suggestion was that when the musicians were in concord the sound would be a little remote; in reality, the acoustic is excellent – immediate, warm and lucid, with a good balance from front to back, brass and percussion carrying well and, here, judiciously blended. But with the sides of the stage being decorously intrusive, the back desks of the first violins and violas (the latter sitting outside-right) were obscured from their colleagues; aurally this meant that individual bow-strokes were sometimes distinct and not connected to the rest of the orchestra.

It also indicates that Lorin Maazel made no concession to ‘historical awareness’ (such as the Mannheim Orchestra’s size when Brahms’s symphonies were premiered). Brahms 1 was given with all of the Philharmonic strings (60-plus in number); the stage was full, woodwinds and brass always audible but the musicians themselves visually hidden by a sea of strings – the stage has no risers, which itself contributes to good balance. A glance at the list of Philharmonic members attests to the longevity of some of the principals – Glenn Dicterow (concertmaster), Eugene Levinson (double bass), Philip Myers (horn), Philip Smith (trumpet), Joseph Alessi (trombone), the distinguished moustachioed features of Robert Langevin (flute) and Stanley Drucker (clarinet). The latter, born in 1929, joined the orchestra in 1948 and, like his ‘first desk’ confreres, here made some wonderful contributions. Conversely, many of the first violinists are young ladies. The relationship between Maazel, music director of the Philharmonic since 2002 (and currently in that position until the end of the 2009 season – his appointment was initially for three years and appears to now be a ‘rolling’ one), seems to be a very productive one.

Brahms’s First Symphony occupied the concert’s first half. The slow introduction was implicitly tragic in the heavy tread of Maazel’s very deliberate (and sustained) tempo. The Allegro shot off with urgency, though, with little slowing in the ‘usual’ spots, the orchestra generating considerable energy and force, Maazel’s fluctuations of pace all part of what might be termed a whimsical approach to tempo and phrasing. Yet it was compelling, and mostly convincing, the very lack of a metronomic approach and the ‘personalising’ of the journey making for a refreshingly individual and unpredictable approach in which ‘diversions’ were part of a bigger picture that became clear in the finale. In the second movement Andante sostenuto, Liang Wang’s oboe solos were especially expressive, his use of rubato at one with Maazel’s conducting (his memory and technical command undiminished) and Dicterow’s vibrato-rich violin solos and Myers’s fulsome contributions filled the auditorium.

Maazel’s ability to somehow meld a natural flow for some passages with those in which he was far more interventionist certainly held the attention – the orchestra alive to every twist and turn that Maazel introduced (one suspects that each performance of the same work is that little bit different). In the expectant slow introduction to the finale, after the springy rhythms of the third movement, the trombones (making their first appearance in this symphony) intoned the ‘motto’ theme with particular elongation and sombreness. When this returns in the triumphant coda, Maazel’s similar broadening (not marked as such by the composer) made sense in the context of the ‘programmatic’ way he had led the whole work. What might be regarded as an ‘epic’ Romantic view of Brahms wasn’t at all predictable: the ‘big’ tune of the finale was surprisingly ‘classical’ in its simplicity and almost-chaste shaping and which was played without ceremony. Like or not how Maazel interpreted this music, it was brought off with immense conviction and with a technical acumen that, at one point, allowed Maazel to cue the violas with his back to them, a spot of ‘underarm’ conducting that seemed impromptu and which drew smiles from the musicians and the conductor!

Indeed the symphony had seemed liked a concert in itself. But there was a ‘Part 2’ in which the ravenously virtuoso Philharmonic opened the Stravinsky with effortless precision and charted the music’s myriad details and kaleidoscopic narration with pin-point placement, diaphanous textures and outstanding solos (not least from Smith’s trumpet). But then Song of the Nightingale has long been a Maazel ‘classic’ – certainly since his late-1950s’ Berlin Radio recording for Deutsche Grammophon.

Daphnis et Chloé enjoyed rapturous expression and beauty of sound. ‘Dawn’ rose inexorably, the brass ‘kiss’ (when hero and heroine are reunited) was in perfect unison and Langevin’s long flute solo was the epitome of elegance and fluidity. Only the final ‘Danse générale’ was a relative disappointment; rhythmic divisions were meticulous and Maazel’s tempo was measured enough for complete clarity (even if he teased out some subsidiary horn parts at the expense of more ‘important’ material) but bacchanalian abandon was kept under wraps. A distended trill before the final, emphatic (and totally together) final chord added a touch of theatricality.

A long ovation of rhythmic clapping followed, Maazel making the audience work hard for the encore we knew was coming (the changes of music on stands made that clear!). In his London appearances with touring orchestras, Maazel has often been generous with such extras – substantial Beethoven and Josef Strauss pieces with the Vienna Philharmonic, sizeable Wagner with the Cleveland Orchestra and Gershwin’s An American in Paris (no less) with the Pittsburgh Symphony. The latter would have been very appropriate at this concert from ‘Americans in Paris’ (assuming three saxophonists could have been produced!). Rather we got two of Brahms’s Hungarian Dances (numbers 1 and 5), which were mercilessly pulled around but fun nonetheless, and the ‘Farandole’ from Bizet’s music for “L’arlésienne”, which blazed forth, the Philharmonic musicians in rapacious command. If Maazel had seemed a little stiff of limb walking onto the platform before he conducted the Brahms symphony, he was now running around like a two-year-old and leaping off the podium without a parachute! The aphrodisiac that is applause! The power of music!

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