Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Brahms' Third and Fourth - New York Philharmonic

At Avery Fisher
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Allan Kozinn of the Times called Thursday's portion of the ongoing Brahms Festival "coldly unemotional", "vulgar", "empty" and "hulking". I don't pretend to be a music critic—just a casual fan, for once—but, sitting up in a Third Tier box with the poor people, I can't claim to have been equally offended. My ignorant ears even enjoyed some of it!

I have always thought that the quality of Brahms' symphonies mirrors the character of each movement within them—that is, one and four, whether referring to a symphony or any of the symphonies' movements, are dynamite powerhouses, while two and three are...well, not so special. Brahms' third movements especially—and particularly when pitted against those of someone like Dvorak, a master of the third movement—feel perfunctory.

And Lorin Maazel, conducting the New York Philharmonic on 31 May 2007, did little to change my mind on Brahms' Third, although it sounded probably as good as I've ever heard it. Though the symphony itself has its moments, such as its plaintive opening, overall I find it much of it to be melodically banal; the orchestra's performance did nothing to change my impression, and I found my mind wandering quite often.

I know only a small portion of the Romantics' repertoire, but what I am familiar with I became so through Leonard Bernstein's classic recordings with New York, so I always find it interesting and a bit challenging to hear Maazel's interpretations. Against Bernstein, his rhythms are slower, and his phrasing is more drawn out, stretching the melodic sequences as if, because so many of them are by now so familiar, he is holding them back for an element of surprise; comparing the two conductors reminds me of comparing the speech rhythms of Americans and Canadians. The latter is just a bit slower, even a bit frustrating in its temper.

But the orchestra's performance of the Fourth was rewarding, although I suppose any orchestra doing a competent performance of that piece would thrill me; I'm still young and inexperienced enough to be thrilled at hearing this gorgeous music performed live. Kozinn said they played it like Tchaikovsky; I like Tchaikovsky. What was remarkable for me about their performance of the Fourth was Maazel's take on the third movement; he reinvented it for me in a similar manner to which he had with Stravinsky's Rite of Spring several months earlier. The Philharmonic played it with gusto and bluster, giving it a wide dynamic range that allowed frequent "dramatic blasts" to ring out. It was truly rousing, and the highlight of the evening. I applauded enthusiastically though, as is my custom, I did not stand.

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