Thursday, November 22, 2007

PBS: Israel Philharmonic 70th Anniversary; curious interpretation of Brahms "youth concerto"

On Wednesday, Nov. 21, PBS aired the 70th Anniversary Gala Concert of the Israel Philharmonic from Tel Aviv, with Zubin Mehta conducting. PBS link is here. There are more airings of the performance scheduled as listed there.

There was plenty of great photography of the city (Tel Aviv), the concert hall, and footage of past outdoor concerts since Israel was established in 1948, accompanied by minor-keyed orchestral music that may have come from the film "Schindler's List" . There was a famous outdoor (in Jerusalem) concert in which Leonard Bernstein conducted Mahler’s Second Symphony, a controversial choice given the issues of the region.

On this concert, there were three items. The first was the familiar Violin Concerto #1 in G Minor by Max Bruch with violinist Bronislaw Huberman. The first movement is essentially an extended prelude, leading to the melodious slow movement and the lively G major finale. I recall hearing this at a friend’s house over a chess game right after I graduated from high school in 1961, setting of a sequence that would eventually become a major life story. (The three Bruch symphonies on Philips are robust and ingratiating.)

The middle piece was Ravel’s La Valse, which is supposed to constitute bitter “satire” of what had just happened in Europe (the shell shock of World War I) at the time it was written.

But the main attraction of the concert was Daniel Barenboim ‘s performance of Johnannes Brahms ‘s Piano Concerto #1 in D minor, which Brahms started at the age of 20, originally as a symphony. It was finally performed as we know it today when he was 25. By contrast, his known first symphony, which he worked on for many years, was not performed until he was 43.

The Concerto was inspired in some part by the attempted suicide of Robert Schumann. At its time, it was “unconventional”, sounding, especially in the first two movements, like a Symphony with piano rather than a concerto. For me, it has always been a curious paradox. The majestic, even monumental first movement proves what Brahms can do with 6/4 time: it starts on a thundering b-flat major chord, then to the dominant A until it settles on the sturm and drang of d minor. In this performance, the orchestra phrased some critical passages unconventionally, with ellipsis, pulling the music forward with an effect that I don’t recall ever hearing before. But at the very end of the movement, Mehta paused be for having the orchestra boom out its final crashing d minor chord, for a tremendous effect. The second movement stays in the tonic D, moving to major, and stays in 6/4 time, which is unusual.

The finale, a Rondo in 2/4, usually sounds “lighter” in many performances. It is supposed to echo the rondo of Beethoven’s C Minor piano concerto (remember how that movement starts with an enharmonic trick on the note G#-A-flat). But here Barenboim and Mehta try to fix what has always been a letdown in the movement. Barenhoim speeds the cadenza up with great virtuosity (giving an effect like that of the cadenza-fugue near the end of Eugen d’Albert’s youth-composed first piano concert) and then Mehta starts to draw out the D Major orchestral ritornel that concludes, speeding up and then slowing down for the very last fortissimo chords. Barenboim also makes a lot of the trills in the piano part, reminding one of the curious effects in the closing passages of Brahms’s youthful Piano Sonata #2 (f-sharp minor).

Brahms did something similar with the second concerto (B-flat) where the first movement is the most massive, and then the scherzo is rather melodramatic, but the slow movement and finale are surprisingly relaxed. (The Schumann A minor concerto is like this,) The custom in some minor keyed romantic piano concertos that would follow would be to convert to the parallel major with a majestic “big tune” for climactic effect. Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky and Grieg provide the best known examples of this “chills and fever” effect for concluding a concerto, and that concept really had not developed that well by the mid 1850s. That’s why the conclusion of the Brahms first piano concerto has always been problematic by comparison.

In my own mind, as a teenager, I always connected the first movement of the Brahms with the first movement of the Rachmaninoff Third Concerto, stylistically different until one plays the ossia cadenza, not often used but perform by Van Cliburn in his 1959 recording with Konrashin. In my own crude “concerto-like: D minor piano sonata that I composed at 16, in D minor, I tried to combine the two “styles” and the piece rather works. I tried also making the slow movement in the subdominant (G major), not done often with works in minor keys. I guess I’d like to get Cakewalk set up with midis to record it, at least to offer on the Internet.

When I worked from 2002-2003 calling for contributions to the Minnesota Orchestra Young People’s Concerts, I got complimentary tickets, and I particularly recall a performance of the Schumann Symphony #2, with a guest conductor whom I don’t recall. But there was a Q&A in which the conductor described this as a symphony that “talks to itself” and has a curious circularity. Every movement is centered on the tonality of C, and the music is a curious mixture of march-like figures and folk-like tunes, including the Romanza. The effect works as the climax at the end is almost Bruckner-like. That is the work where Bernstein's unearthing of the opulent "original orchestration" created controversy in the 60s but is well accepted today as the standard way to perform the work.

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