The Staatskapelle Berlin took up residence in Carnegie Hall last Thursday and Friday nights. The orchestra played the Brahms symphonies: the first two on Thursday night, the second two the next night. The orchestra was to be conducted by its longtime chief, Daniel Barenboim (who began that job in 1992). But he has been ailing.
He was replaced by a conductor well known in New York, and well known in Philadelphia: Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Maestro Nézet-Séguin is the music director of the Metropolitan Opera and the music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra, both. Amazing, to lead two of the most important musical institutions in America, and in the world.
(The late James Levine accomplished the same trick: leading the Boston Symphony Orchestra for a while, in addition to the Met.)
Friday night’s concert, as you know, began with Brahms’s Symphony No. 3 (which is in F major, Op. 90). The entrance was fudged. That is, the opening measure, the initial attack, was imprecise. The first measures in general were bumpy—segmented, let’s say, instead of seamless. But the orchestra soon found its groove.
The Berliners’ sound was rich, plump, and Brahmsian. Nézet-Séguin, as usual, evidenced his love of music—his unabashed, all-in love of music. He was committed body and soul.
Something interesting happened between the first and second movements: no pause. There would be no pause—there would be “attacca”—all night long (with one exception). A given movement went directly into the next. Why? The only reason I can think of is this: to prevent unwanted applause; to keep the symphonies going.
A word, perhaps, about the third movement of the Third—it is like a ghostly dance. I thought it was a tad too slow, from Nézet-Séguin’s baton. But the tempo was certainly within bounds. And a singing, unflubbing French horn is a beautiful (not too common) thing.
The final movement benefited from storm and masculinity; from passion and definition. As I jotted in my notes: “no Brahmsian goo.”
How about the Symphony No. 4 (in E minor, Op. 98)? In the opening measures, everyone was breathing right. Everyone was interlocking. This was how it must be. In this movement, the orchestra swelled and subsided, heaved and withdrew. Also, there was an element of the heroic here, rarely brought out.
Nézet-Séguin was conducting, and the Staatskapelle Berlin was playing, like it was the most important thing in the world. With startling intensity.
Parts of the second movement were “daringly soft,” as critics say. Others were warm, soulful, and hymn-like. At the end of this movement, Nézet-Séguin indeed paused. This was the exception of the night.
The third movement was a shout of joy. This was virile Brahms, the Brahms that one also hears in, for example, the Academic Festival Overture. Not a measure was warped. There was Classical discipline.
You may be familiar with an old expression about Brahms: the “Classical Romantic.”
The final movement proceeded with inexorability. Along the way, we had beautiful flute playing and an exemplary brass choir. At the end, there was no funny business: Nézet-Séguin cut off that chord exactly on time, without a millisecond’s lingering.
(I was reminded of Lorin Maazel, a great cutter-off of notes. Each note had to have its precise value, and if it did not, it was wrong.)
Ladies and gentlemen, I can’t emphasize enough: this evening of Brahms had so much heart. It made me think that other Brahms playing is too reserved. For forty years or more, I have been listening to Brahms concerts—orchestral and otherwise. I have never heard a more satisfying such concert than Friday night’s. Swear.