THE BLOG
03/04/2013 03:27 pm ET Updated May 04, 2013

A Hearty Evening of Brahms and Tchaikovsky

After hearing an underwhelming Brahms Piano Concerto (No.1, with pianist Yefim Bronfman), I decided to give the New York Philharmonic another try with Brahms -- this time starring Austrian pianist Rudolf Buchbinder in the second piano concerto. On the podium was the N.Y. Philharmonic's own music director, Alan Gilbert.

While Gilbert's conducting was as effortful as ever, the orchestra did responded with a surprisingly full and rich sound. (More effort from a conductor usually does not beget more results from the musicians.) It accompanied well with the soloist, who had a rather grandiose manner of playing. 66-year-old Buchbinder is a veteran -- he has dozens of recording under his belt, including all of Beethoven's piano sonatas and variations, all of the piano concertos of Mozart and Brahms, an 18-CD set of Haydn and lots of other respectable stuff. He's just the image of a venerable musician, complete with an imposing mane of dark silver hair and a distinguished, slightly haughty air.

He seemed slightly rattled, however, fumbling a couple of passages and his tone was a bit harsh and hard. He could play both beautifully and delicately -- but lacked warmth and tender emotion. He had very little of the Brahms magic that I love -- that sense of something immeasurably precious, hidden and joyful. I've been hearing this music since the cradle, yet, when played right, it never fails to surprise me with its gems of tenderness. This evening, there were no such surprises. Pretty and attractive music, to be sure, but it's not the same thing as opening up the treasures of your heart.

In the last movement, he tried to shake things up a little by playing around with the rhythm and drawing out quirky accents, but he did not seem very emotionally connected to the music. The orchestra had emotionality is spades, though -- and with the conductor rousing the orchestra with wide sweeping gestures, the Brahms turned out quite grandiose.

Gilbert's abundant style did not flag in the second half of the concert, with Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6, "Pathetique." Full-bodied and heartily romantic, it did not have typically Russian austerity (after all Russians are rather cool on the surface) or a neurotic sense of fatality that would not have been out of place in a work dealing with the theme of death.

Perhaps I read too much into the "Pathetique," but for me the music is full of foreboding and fatalism. Little wonder that choreographer Roland Petit set it to ballet and used both the title and storyline of the composer's most fatalistic opera, "The Queen of Spades." Even the brilliant third movement -- so brilliant that it often makes audiences burst out into applause -- should not be bubbling with excitement, as Gilbert's performance was. It should not be this cheerful and vigorous, because it is the false energy of frenzy before the end. I don't even think it is a memory of youthful happier times -- to me it seems more like denial.

The ending of the symphony is like the last breath of life, and it takes the whole last movement to reach that point. The ending is inexorable but drawn-out over many diminuendos, each one like a last breath -- but he is still breathing, faintly but still breathing... until there is no more breath. In this performance, I was a little surprised -- it sounded like somebody who had been talking normally about mundane matters had suddenly fallen silent, and when I glanced over, I found he was dead. Not a good surprise at all.

Of course, the N.Y. Phil does have a history of very un-Russian Tchaikovsky; it didn't start with Gilbert. Leonard Bernstein's 1987 recording of the work with the orchestra is probably one of the most emotionally overloaded and vigorously melodramatic interpretations out there. Gilbert didn't go that far, but it certainly was heartier fare than I had hoped for.

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