The program at the New York Philharmonic last night was unusually appealing (at least to some of us): a Mozart piano concerto and a Bruckner symphony. The concerto was that in E flat, K. 482. The symphony was the Seventh. Our pianist was Yefim Bronfman, and our conductor was Jaap van Zweden. Very appealing indeed.
Before the music started, Deborah Borda and Carter Brey came out to do a little shtick. She is the president and CEO of the Philharmonic, and he is the principal cellist. They bantered with each other and touted the renovated Geffen Hall: its appearance and acoustics. There is a lot to tout, to be sure.
Van Zweden became the music director in 2018. In these years, I have heard a dog not barking: I don’t think I have ever heard Van Zweden speak to the audience (or speak at all). He is the kind of conductor who lets the music do the talking.
My impression is, Van Zweden does not come from the Age of Oprah. He comes from more like the Age of Mengelberg, or Van Beinum.
On many an evening, Van Zweden’s predecessor at the Philharmonic would come out with a microphone, for a little pre-concert lecture—especially if he was about to conduct a new piece. (The composer would usually be in tow.) This could kill an evening dead even before the downbeat had been given.
That was my view, but I sense it was a minority one. In any event . . .
Jaap and “Fima”—Jaap van Zweden and Yefim Bronfman—are birds of a feather. They are old-school musicians, having the same musical values. They are disciplined, solid, conscientious. You won’t hear much funny business (although you will hear ample musicality).
They certainly have a similar view of Mozart. Their Mozart is full—unafraid and un-cutesy—neither “period” nor “bloated.” I am reminded of Casadesus and Szell, in their Mozart concertos. Also, Bronfman reminds me of Moravec, the late (and great) Czech.
I once knew a pianist and teacher who spoke of “honest playing”—“good, honest playing.” That was just about her highest commendation. She meant: playing without artifice, without shallowness, without falsity. Good, honest playing.
This applies to Bronfman, in Mozart and other composers.
About the first movement of K. 482, I have a complaint: I think it could have used more mirth—more of a sparkle—from Bronfman. It was a touch sober, to my taste. The second movement, Andante, was a model of good sense. Beautifully executed. In the orchestra, Robert Langevin was magic-flutey. The closing rondo certainly had its mirth and sparkle. And Bronfman played his own cadenza—that is, a cadenza of his own devising.
This was both faithful and creative. It was well within the bounds of the concerto, yet it was “new” and individualistic as well. At the end of his cadenza—as he was bidding the orchestra to reenter—Bronfman put in a little creeping chromaticism. Very effective.
He played his cadenza with clear fondness. It was his best playing in the concerto, I think. It was caressing, tender, but not sappy. It also had a snap to it.
Bronfman played no encore, as the applause was not sustained enough. Elsewhere, he might have played two—a Scarlatti sonata and the “Revolutionary” Étude (Chopin), maybe.
About Jaap van Zweden’s Bruckner, I have written several times. In general, this is what I say:
It is smart, rigorous, and big-boned. It is Szell-like. Some like their Bruckner a little looser, more meandering, more indulgent. Van Zweden treats Bruckner like an heir to Beethoven. He does not go astray (even if he could smell the flowers a bit more). He keeps the architecture of the piece in mind. The symphony is whole, it is unified. It is not episodic.
My complaint, in the past, has been this:
The music could use more warmth, even more of a religioso feeling. Van Zweden can be guilty of brusqueness. I would rather have brusque Bruckner than swampy Bruckner, robbed of form. But . . .
Last night, in the Seventh, Van Zweden showed all of his good qualities, as he always has. And there was plenty of warmth: in the opening pages, notably; and in that sighing, sublime Adagio. Is that warmth attributable to the new acoustics of the hall? I don’t think so. But, frankly, it’s hard to be sure.
Langevin was, again, a magic flute (even though this was Bruckner, not Mozart). And when did the Philharmonic horn section get so good?
Van Zweden and the New York Philharmonic delivered my kind of Bruckner Seventh: having a Classical core, an infusion of the divine, and—especially in the Scherzo and Finale—a fighting spirit.
Elsewhere, the audience would have applauded till midnight. In Salzburg, Van Zweden would have had to order the orchestra off the stage.
Again, he is not from the Age of Oprah. He does not do “outreach,” as far as I know, except with his baton. I doubt he could define “intersectionality” if his life depended on it. He is merely a good or great conductor, and we have him in New York until the end of next season. Mirabile dictu.
One footnote, please. My sense is, noises from the audience—the dropping of canes and cellphones; the turning of pages in the program—are more pronounced in the new hall, with its better acoustics. During the Adagio of the Bruckner, one lady near me played with her program. It sounded like an extra percussion section. But she stopped after a couple of minutes, leaving Bruckner and the world at peace.