Jaap van Zweden, the conductor, and Igor Levit, the pianist, are cut from the same cloth. Each is intensely devoted to music. Intensely. Each is disciplined, no-nonsense, bracing. I have often thought there is a caste of musical monks—and Van Zweden and Levit belong to it.
I thought they would be particularly suited to the Brahms Piano Concerto in D minor, too. This is a sprawling, unwieldy work, or can be. (It is also a masterpiece.) It benefits from some Classical discipline, a Beethoven approach, if you will.
On Friday night, the second movement—the Adagio, in D major—was heavenly. Heavenly. It was played as if by angels. (It is written as if by angels.) I practically held my breath.
How about the outer movements? They were good, of course. How could they not be, given the performers involved? In each of these movements, the soloist, in particular, did some brilliant things. But he did not have his best outing.
When he entered, in the first movement, he seemed to choose a different tempo from the one the conductor had established—a faster one. And there was some looseness, some sloppiness, uncharacteristic of Levit.
But look: I have very, very high expectations from Levit and Van Zweden, both. And so much of music—of concert life—is an expectations game. I wish they could have another shot at the concerto—one that I could hear, I mean. But the shot they took was not without its virtues.
That Adagio, again, was memorable.
Levit played an encore, one of his usuals, the Busoni arrangement of Bach’s Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland. Levit played it with a hushed reverence—and with the pianistic skill and musicality that the piece deserves.
I have not said, yet, that I am writing of a concert by the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall. Jaap van Zweden, as you probably know, is the orchestra’s music director. For a long time, Carnegie Hall was the Philharmonic’s home: from 1892 to 1962. These days, the orchestra is just an occasional visitor to the hall.
Is Carnegie better than David Geffen Hall, at Lincoln Center, where the Philharmonic has played for as long as most of us can remember? Yes, it is. Geffen is being renovated as we speak, by the way. But I always thought that the acoustics of the hall were used as an excuse, for poor orchestral sound. My reason is twofold.
First, the Philharmonic, under certain conductors, in certain pieces, on certain evenings, sounded magnificent. Second, so did visitors, on many an occasion. I think of the London Symphony Orchestra under Sir Colin Davis.
Anyway, we can jaw about acoustics another time.
The New York Philharmonic’s program on Friday night had just two works: the Brahms piano concerto and, after intermission, the Concerto for Orchestra. Bartók’s, of course. But, earlier this season, the Philharmonic played the concerto for orchestra by another Hungarian composer, a contemporary of Bartók’s, Zoltán Kodály. Kodály wrote his in 1940; Bartók wrote his in 1943. Bartók’s is canonical, and deservedly so; Kodály’s is more a curiosity, but it is a commendable piece, undeserving of obscurity.
You would have expected Jaap van Zweden to conduct an incisive, clear, sensible Concerto for Orchestra (Bartók’s), and he did. You would have expected the Philharmonic’s principals to shine too, and they did. What’s to complain about? Nothing—except that, for this listener, the concerto did not deliver the thrill it can.
But I say once more: I have high, high expectations for Van Zweden, and for the Philharmonic, especially when this Dutchman is on the podium.
Thinking about the Bartók Concerto for Orchestra, I think about André Previn, and an interview he gave in his later years—in 2008, to the Guardian, in Britain. I will quote: “The last time he heard a piece of new music that really set him on fire was when he was a teenager, listening to Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra.”
Between the mid-1940s and the late 2000s—that is a long time. If you hear a new piece of music that really sets you on fire—good for you, and please let the rest of us know.