Who goes to a matinee concert on a weekday? Apparently, a lot of people do. Avery Fisher Hall was completely full on Jan. 18 for the New York Philharmonic's concert with former NY Phil music director Lorin Maazel returning to the podium with Israeli American pianist Yefim Bronfman as soloist. The dark hall was teeming with people excited about the great music they were going to hear; Brahms' "Piano Concerto No.1" is one of the most beloved of piano concertos and for a good reason -- it has just about everything to satisfy a listener; grand, imposing chords from the orchestra, brilliant piano passages, a middle movement so beautiful and delicate you almost forget to breath and a rousing finale.
Maazel started off the exposition very ponderously; so slowly that the strings sounded uneven and the whole orchestra took on a rather musty tone. I naively expected things to change for the better when Bronfman started playing; while he is not a notable Brahms player, (I would say Andre Watts and Krystian Zimerman are two of the best living performers of the German romantic composer) he has, I knew, a formidable technique and the Brahms is not an easy one to play. I have heard him coolly attacking Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev's concertos and dispatching them with ease. I didn't expect much in the way of introvert reflection, but Bronfman is, after all, a celebrated pianist, performing to full houses all over the world.
I was, unfortunately, very wrong. For one, he seemed afflicted with a very weighty right foot, and the heavy pedaling made a very watery Brahms at best and a muddy one at worst. At the same time, his music lacked solidity -- Brahms after all is very much a German composer; a potatoes and sausage kind of composer -- yet it was not light and nimble either; it was just morose.
The stern first movement has its rays of sunshine -- the major theme shines through like warm sunshine between heavy clouds on a stormy day -- but played by Bronfman, these moments were just as cold as the rest. The orchestra attempted to create pockets of warmth, but the soloist grimly plodded on.
What makes Brahms' music so beautiful is the sense of deep humility and gratitude that one senses throughout his music. Brahms was a romantic composer looking backwards towards the classical era. His music did not make leaps of faith into Mahler-esque heroism or Wagnerian self-aggrandizement or miracles of love; his music constantly looked inwards, searching for answers within. The second movement is a typical example of that; it is an ethereally beautiful and intimate soul-searching journey, but Bronfman seemed utterly indifferent. He then went through the concerto's last movement poker-faced, only occasionally showing a slight change in mood by stomping messily on both keyboard and pedal.
Mr. Bronfman, I am sorry that you had to get up early on a Friday morning to play music that you evidently do not enjoy. Really, do you like this music? Do you think it's beautiful and wondrous? I think not, judging by your performance. This is one of my favorite pieces of music, and it is full of wonderful moments; it is dramatic, colossal, humbling, heavenly and uplifting. But you don't seem to think so. I'm sorry about that.
Things improved marginally in the second half with Sibelius' "Symphony No. 2"; Maazel elicited a very rich sound from the orchestra he called his own from 2002 to 2009. However, here again, he was ponderous and emphasized every phrase -- which, coupled with Sibelius' dense orchestration, became almost unbearably massive and thick. Maazel is an excellent conductor but evidently, this was not one of his inspired days.
While I initially thought having a matinee on a weekday afternoon was daft, the New York Philharmonic knew what they were doing. The audience certainly consisted of far more elderly people than one usually sees, but there was a good sprinkling of students and everyone seemed happy to be at a concert on a Friday afternoon. I wish the performers had shared their enthusiasm, that is all.