Piano Concerto No.1 in D minor, Op.15
Symphony in E flat
András Schiff (piano)
New York Philharmonic
Reviewed by: David M. Rice
Reviewed: 4 March, 2010
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York City
Riccardo Muti returned to the New York Philharmonic for one of his last few programmes before his long-standing relationship with the orchestra as a guest conductor will come to an end when he becomes Music Director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra this fall, as well as assuming the directorship of the Rome Opera House. As in his prior visits to the Philharmonic, the chemistry between Muti and the orchestra produced performances of superior quality. Muti is a strong exponent and sensitive interpreter of the music of Paul Hindemith, whose rarely-heard Symphony in E flat capped off this concert, but the first half of the programme – Brahms’s D minor Piano Concerto with András Schiff – was also gripping.
In the lengthy orchestral introduction of the concerto’s first movement, Muti set carefully a rather dark and stormy mood, with the timpani prominent, double basses rumbling beneath the higher strings, and ominous horn calls. This contrasted brusquely with Schiff’s gentle renderings of the principal and secondary thematic material, although at times the piano joined the orchestra in more powerfully dramatic excursions. Schiff played with his characteristic elegance of style, refraining from trying to overpower the music, and Muti was a fine partner, bringing out each orchestral contribution – an oboe solo here, a horn solo there – with great clarity and in perfect balance with the piano. None of Brahms’s inner voices were lost, either by the piano or the orchestra. Schiff was more than up to the technical demands of the score, playing trills, runs and rapid figures with precision.
In the Adagio, Schiff’s delicate rendering of the lyrical principal theme alternated with the lush Philharmonic strings, with fine orchestral solos along the way, beginning with a beautiful bassoon solo in the opening bars and including noteworthy contributions from the horn, oboe and clarinet. In the finale, Schiff played the rollicking theme with a light, bouncy touch. There was excellent communication among pianist, conductor and orchestra as the movement progressed from one variation to the next, changing tempos and styles in the process. Orchestral solos on horn and winds and a striking fugal section for strings were excellently performed under Muti’s direction, and Schiff’s piano virtually sparkled in rapid runs and scales as well as in the swirling figures and trills of the cadenza, in which some more introspective ideas also were expressed. Between the cadenza and the driving coda, the orchestral accompaniment was particularly engaging, with a soaring horn solo echoed by oboe and flute, and a brief but charming passage for bassoon, oboe and horn with a ‘Turkish’ flavor. With Schiff’s rapid passagework booming above the strings and solo horn, the concerto roared to a dramatic conclusion.
By programming Hindemith’s Symphony in E flat – a rarity not performed by the New York Philharmonic since 1967, when it was conducted (and brilliantly recorded) by Leonard Bernstein – and through the intensity and virtuosity of this performance, Muti continues to make a strong case for raising Hindemith to a more prominent place in the concert repertory.
Most of Hindemith’s major symphonic works were composed for, or excerpted from, staged works – opera in the cases of “Mathis der Maler” and “Die Harmonie der Welt”, and dance in the cases of Nobilissima visione. The Symphony in E flat, however, is an abstract work that lacks any explicit programmatic structure, yet it nevertheless seems inextricably connected with World War Two, which was well underway when the symphony was composed. Prior to the outbreak of war, Hindemith had fled his native Germany with his Jewish wife after the Third Reich had officially banned his music and escalated its persecution of the Jews. He moved to the United States in 1940, accepting a teaching position at Yale University. That summer, whilst Hindemith was teaching at Tanglewood, the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s summer home, Serge Koussevitzky, the BSO’s music director, commissioned him to compose what became this symphony, which was completed by the end of that year.
The symphony is pervaded by music evocative of war and death, starting with the martial horn fanfare that generates the principal theme of the rather short first movement. The slow one that follows is suggestive of a funeral march and a sad lament, and the scherzo of a danse macabre. All of these elements return in the finale, which culminates powerfully and triumphantly. The prominence of the brass in the symphony is not surprising, as Hindemith had, some ten years before, composed his Concert Music for String Orchestra and Brass specifically for the BSO’s famed brass section, also on commission from Koussevitzky.
Under Muti, the Philharmonic played with vigor and enthusiasm, generating a feeling of excitement in the opening movement as sudden and dramatic pauses were interlaced with the recurring horn motif, and the percussion section peppered the music almost as with gunfire. The strings were fine as they played a quirky variant on the main theme, accompanied a clarinet-bassoon duet with pizzicatos, and provided counterpoint to the chattering of the entire wind section. In this movement, as indeed throughout the symphony, Muti skilfully brought out many characteristics that typify Hindemith’s neo-classical musical style – Bach-like counterpoint, Brucknerian romanticism, and chromaticism influenced by Brahms and Wagner – all expressed in Hindemith’s iconoclastic tonal musical language.
The second movement opened with a soft, poignant theme on trumpet above the steady beat of the timpani and dissonant brass chords. Hindemith’s brilliant use of counterpoint was very much in evidence as a moving lamentation on the violins was taken up by the cellos and flutes in canonic succession, and later in the string accompaniments to oboe and clarinet solos. The music became almost fugal in a mid-movement string passage and again as the first violins played a repetitive theme that the flute and oboe voiced in turn as the movement neared its conclusion, recalling the martial character of the first movement.
The third movement, a scherzo replete with trio, opened with a rather sardonic theme played with a driving impulse provided by whooping horns, brass and percussion – with the rute being especially prominent. The Philharmonic’s winds were outstanding in this movement – especially in the trio section in which piccolo (Mindy Kaufman), cor anglais (Thomas Stacy), bass clarinet (Amy Zoloto) and contrabassoon (Arlen Fast) were raised to equal prominence with their more frequently heard cousins.
After only the briefest of pauses, Muti plunged into the contrapuntal string passage that began the final movement. With the horns and brass providing a reminder of the martial tone with which the work began, the strings became even more assertive, to the accompaniment of a steady drumbeat. The winds then took centre-stage again, playing an increasingly dissonant theme and providing counterpoint to a lyrical theme on the strings. A martial tone soon returned, with the winds and brass brilliant as they passed around the theme of a fugal march. A mournful string passage gave way to horns playing above ostinato figures on the cellos, with brass and the remaining strings joining as the tempo quickened, the rhythm changed, and the texture became increasingly dense. A brief but exciting coda brought the symphony to an exciting and triumphant close.