Avery Fisher Hall, New York, January 16, 2002–Thomas Hampson’s illness, which caused him to pull out of this New York Philharmonic performance of John Adams’ The Wound Dresser, adds to the sadly growing list of canceled performances of the composer’s work, which include a production of his oratorio El Niño and a BSO performance of the Klinghoffer Choruses. Couldn’t the most famous orchestra in America have found a substitute? Are there no other baritones who know this piece? Apparently not. So Yefim Bronfman was called in to pinch-hit at the keyboard, playing Mozart’s C minor Piano Concerto (No. 24). The result: dull as anything, dull as the rest of the concert.
Christian Thielemann is high profile in New York these days, mostly due to the spectacular, star-studded production of Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten on view at the Metropolitan Opera. Seeing him conduct a rather typical orchestral concert, however, one wonders what all the fuss is about. The evening began with a new piece, Nachtstück (–aufgegbenes Werk) by Peter Ruzicka, a colleague of Hans Werner Henze, which was like an uninquisitive version of Ives’ Unanswered Question: It was similar only in the fact that a trumpet intoned a rather jagged melody over high string chords. The opening, which featured a high, held harmonic in the violins followed by a long silence, was almost killed by Thielemann, who took the silences as blunt pauses rather than somehow keeping them alive as living bits of the music. After some 15 minutes of figuration and unmenacing plodding, the string harmonics were back, as was Theilemann’s desultory attitude towards the material. Is it a dull piece or was it a dull performance? Probably both.
Mozart’s C minor Piano Concerto is like a tragic opera redux; he rarely composed for the piano in the minor and when he did, he was going for a particular effect. In order for it to achieve that effect, it has to run hot and heavy, with emotions worn on the sleeve. In an excellent performance, it has twists and turns that are of constant surprising invention. This version was more an occurrence than a performance. Thielemann didn’t seem to understand the form of the piece, there was little shape to the work and the points at which the music came to a rest were not only unsatisfying, but seemed intentionally thwarted, as if he was bent on offering a different (read: precise and sexless) version. He exercised his authoritarian right to make it unmusical if that was his wont. Bronfman played reasonably well, becoming less restrained in the cadenzas – especially in the opening Allegro – but was, in the end, too-appropriately bland. The chamber-music-like interaction that needs to occur between soloist and orchestra was simply not there, nobody seemed to be actively listening to one another. In all fairness, this last minute addition was likely under-rehearsed, but that does little to account for how dull it was.
Thielemann and the orchestra loosened up for the Brahms First Symphony, but the same things that in the Mozart were so problematic made for a rather flat performance: this piece has an edge of unpredictability, and the conductor seemed not to understand that. Almost every beautiful surprise Brahms composed into his symphony (like the brass chorale or the sudden and shimmering chords in the final movement, or when the first movement finally arrives at the recapitulation) was not given its due respect. Thielemann seemed almost determined to defy Brahms’ score, with slow tempi, unexciting climaxes and little knowledge of the form. There were also balance problems, the winds being consistently too loud and the timpani much too present – perhaps this was what Thielemann perceived as the most “romantic” way to read the symphony. By the end of the final movement, the group relaxed into a reasonable performance of the piece, but it was too little too late, though not for the audience, which incomprehensibly leapt to its feet.–Daniel Felsenfeld