Friday morning’s program at the New York Philharmonic had two works on it: a great piano concerto and a great symphony. The former Classical, the latter Romantic.
Did I say “Friday morning”? Yes, 11 o’clock. A very civilized hour at which to attend a concert.
The conductor was Jaap van Zweden, the Philharmonic’s new music director, and the pianist was Yefim Bronfman, the veteran American (or Russian Israeli American, if you like). Their concerto was that in B flat by Beethoven.
In the initial entrance, the orchestra was not together. This was not Jaap-like. But there was hardly any imprecision after that. It was Jaap-likeness from here on in.
The sound of the orchestra—in Beethoven’s first movement and the subsequent two—was both plump and Classical. It was by no means bloated. But neither was it anemic. This is the kind of sound—plump and Classical—that James Levine got out of orchestras in Mozart, Beethoven (especially early Beethoven), and so on. It is a right sound, in my judgment.
Bronfman was, as usual, a model of taste. He has the gift of “weightedness,” I often say. Individual notes are accorded their right weights, and so are phrases. There are no wrong accents. Everything matches.
Furthermore, Bronfman was not too sober in this opening movement, allowing for the playfulness of the music.
He and Van Zweden are of one mind, when it comes to Beethoven (and probably other composers). They get what is stirring and noble about him. I would often say of Levine—especially in Mozart—that he imparted a sense of “just-rightness.” So it was here, in Beethoven’s first movement.
I had never quite heard these qualities in this music before. Van Zweden showed an understanding that is obvious to all, but only once it comes to light.
The second movement, the Adagio, began with a drama that was almost operatic. This could have been Fidelio, rather than the B-flat piano concerto. There was similar drama throughout the movement—huge drama and tension (though submerged, or inner). I had never quite heard these qualities in this music before. Van Zweden showed an understanding that is obvious to all, but only once it comes to light. As for Bronfman, he contributed playing of extraordinary beauty and limpidity.
To my taste, the third movement, the rondo, was a little subdued. I like more paprika in it. But it was good enough, and the concerto overall was first-class. I have long wanted Bronfman to record all thirty-two Beethoven sonatas. I hope he will do this, and not leave it too late.
Over the weekend, I talked with my mother (as one does). She said of Bronfman, “When he walks out onstage, you know everything is going to be right.” A wise and true statement.
After the Beethoven concerto on Friday morning, the audience gave Bronfman hearty, or hearty enough, applause. I thought he would respond with his regular Scarlatti sonata or perhaps a Beethoven bagatelle. But there was no encore.
The Romantic symphony on the second half of the program was by Rachmaninoff: his Symphony No. 2 in E minor (perhaps the greatest of all Romantic symphonies). In my lifetime, by my lights, there have been two great interpreters of this symphony: Previn and Temirkanov. Van Zweden makes a third. I will offer a few generalities about Friday morning’s performance.
First, the matter of sound. The orchestra’s sound was often raw, bony, grainy, brawny, and Russian. A superb sound for this symphony. And as I listened, I thought, “There’s nothing wrong with this hall, not a damn thing, despite what people say. Good conductors can get the right sounds.”
I have been mentioning James Levine in this review. Well, I often said that he conducted Romantic music—Wagner, for example—with “Beethoven strength.” There was Beethoven strength in Van Zweden’s Rachmaninoff too. A Classical discipline, if you like, which benefited the symphony.
After a while, I could forget about the conducting. I didn’t hear the conducting anymore; I didn’t hear interpretation—just Rachmaninoff’s symphony. That is a gift to a listener.
The second movement was incisive and exciting. It also breathed naturally (as did the whole work). The third movement is the slow movement, with that wonderful song (which was turned into a pop song, in the 1970s: “Never Gonna Fall in Love Again”). It is important that this music not be sentimental. And it wasn’t, in these hands. It simply unfolded, organically. Nothing was “placed.” Indeed, the music was virtually unmanaged. And Anthony McGill, the principal clarinet, earned his keep, as he can be counted on to do.
How about the fourth movement, the finale? It was thrilling, bracing, and inexorable, as it was born to be.
You can go many a moon without hearing a Beethoven concerto or a Rachmaninoff symphony so good.
In the audience was a man in a T-shirt and a billed cap. He stood in the aisle and applauded with his arms raised high in the air. He was absolutely right.
I thought of a story from the Metropolitan Opera. Walter Taussig was long on the music staff there. He was a conductor born in Vienna in 1908. He started at the Met in the late 1940s. One day, he said to Levine, “You know, Jimmy, they talk about ‘the good old days.’ Well, I was there, during the good old days. And let me tell you: these are the good old days.”
People at that concert on Friday morning were very lucky to be there. You can go many a moon without hearing a Beethoven concerto or a Rachmaninoff symphony so good. These are the good old days.