Friday, January 18, 2013

For me, the Brahms Second Symphony was the drawing card to the Kennedy Center; Tzimon Barto dazzles with a Bartok concerto

I’ll get why I went to the National Symphony Concert  at the Kennedy Center tonight in a moment.

The resident music director  Christoph Eschenbach opened the program with the Overture to Egmont, Op. 84, by Beethoven.  My experience with the piece comes from Otto Klemperer on Angel in the early 60s. The play by Goethe (upon which Beethoven set his incidental music) is said to have a correspondence to the modern history struggle of eastern Europe to free itself from the Soviet Union.  The overture (it sounds like F Minor) changes to major at the end for a prestissimo finish.  The performance was straightforward.

The concert continued with the Piano Concerto #2 in G, Sz 95, by Bela Bartok, considered one of the most difficult piano concerti in the literature.  (I thought the Rachmaninoff #3 had earned that honor.)  The piece is “famous” for its symmetrical “arch within an arch” form, where the second movement is ternary, and where the finale recapitulates, even faster, the motives of the first movement.  (The "arch within an arch" is like Clive Barker's "fish within a fish (squared)".)  The music is absorbing, and mixed impressionism with neoclassicism, with Bartok’s own trademarked modal harmonies and motives.  The effect is difficult to describe.  During the second movement (after those random dour dissonant grunts from the strings m-- anticipating Lutoslawski), I got hypnotized looking at the chandeliers above me in the auditorium, and started imagining them as pods housing aliens.  (I waill accept nothing less.)

The pianist was Tzimon Barto (apparently about 40, link), who is also an author and playwright (“A Lady of Greek Origin"), and a bit of a linguist (like Tolkien, perhaps) according to the program notes.   And like Timo Andres (Dec. 11, 2010 review) he plays the Schumann Kreisleriana  After the performance, Barto added an encore, a transcription of a Bach aria.  As for Barto's book and play, I couldn’t find a current version on Amazon. The similarity of the pianist's surname to that of the composer (except for one letter) is perhaps just a coincidence.

It appeared that Barto was reading sheet music at the piano.  I thought pianists always played from memory. Why not use the iPad? I think that page-turning software exists.  
Now, for the meat course (my reason for coming), after the Intermission.  That was the Brahms Symphony #2 in D Major, Op. 73.  The program notes make a lot of the mixture of melancholia (like Lars Von Trier) and  pastoral moods (as Brahms envisioned it), but seems sunny today.  The first movement seems like an animated slow movement, with a lot of syncopation based on triple time, and tricks you into thinking it is starting with a slow introduction.  Eschenbach took the repeat.  The audience clapped after the noble slow movement in B Major, which is followed by a light scherzo (for Brahms) in G.  Each of the first three movements ends quietly, with a chord dying away, and the orchestra really never achieved a real pianissimo for any of these.  

The joy of the piece is the robust finale, which at one point (before the Recapitulation) makes a reference to the opening of the Beethoven Ninth (aka opening of the Mahler First).  The closing measures, with their unbelievable syncopation and acceleration, come crashing down in a kind of ultimate triumph, even matching the joy at the end of the somber First Symphony.

The piece is important to me because of its connection to my lost first semester at the College of William and Mary in the fall of 1961 (the “BillBoushka” blog, Nov. 28, 2006 posting).  One day, it started to play on my roommate’s clock-radio in the dorm room in Brown Hall, and he went on a tirade against classical music. He felt positively nauseated by the effect of the very beginning. I suppose for some people the effect of breaking a rolling triple meter into duple syncopation and cross rhythms as Brahms lies to do can create an urge. A lot of personal history (mine) resulted. 

I had another friend there (posting here Jan. 8, 2013) with whom I saw the film “Aimez-vous Brahms” (or  "Goodbye Again", by Anatole Litvak) that semester, in which the sad minuetto from the Third Symphony appears.

Let me come back to the finale.  The program notes mention the Brahms Violin Concerto, also in D, which would soon follow.  In the 2007 film “There Will Be Blood” director Paul Thomas Anderson used the finale, almost complete, of the concerto for the closing credits.  I remember, by chance, sitting next to a high school or college student (about 17 or so)  who attended with his family, and was quite transfixed by the use of the concerto in the credits.
I think that the Finale of the Second would make great closing credits for a movie – maybe my movie.  But you have to play it all (about eight minutes) and the credit roll to finish as the last chords come down.  

When I arrived at the Kennedy Center, a performance of a country-western group called "Poor Old Shine" was concluding on the Millennium Stage. 

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