Settling into her seat at Parma's Auditorium Niccolò Paganini for the Daniel Harding/MCO/Hélène Grimaud concert this past Friday, March 27, Opera Chic wondered -- how many times does the old "Brahms is soooooo autumnal" horse need to be beat until we can finally move on to a newer, cooler reading of his work? Make no mistake -- no one more than Opera Chic loves, for example, Carlo Maria Giulini's Brahms Fourth Symphony, that is so masterful in Giulini's and the CSO control of that powerful structure that we can probably consider it the definitive reading of this specific work. But Brahms symphonies in general -- not to mention his chamber work -- have been condemned to be interpreted as sadcore, as the perfect soundtrack for a twilight time (it's the approach given to it even by a giant such as the Glorious maestro Barbirolli -- his Third is so elegant, so burnished, OK, but...).
The Third, actually, is very much the opposite -- just like much of Brahms's work: the Third has a nervous, powerful soul that is reluctant tho manifest itself -- too bad so many conductors muffle that fury, and that originality, in an analysis that's just too melancholy. The Third does not go gentle into the night -- in fact, it isn't even a nocturnal work, and its famous coda is anything but peaceful. It's a work of elusive complexity that, to Opera Chic, appears to be the key to unlocking Brahms's secrets and, at the same time, forever condemned to be misunderstood. It's Brahms's Alice in Wonderland.
And since this work was part of the program of the night's concert Opera Chic was curious to see what Daniel Harding, that brash young maestro, would with that amazing work of wonders. Opera Chic had recently heard another young, dashing maestro, John Axelrod, give Brahms what is Brahms's -- she had high hopes that Harding would do the same, give us a Brahms who is here and now.
But even before the music began it was impossible not to notice the muffled and rather surreal channeling of sound that marked the hall, the pre-concert chatter echoing strangely over our heads. Italian architecture maestro Renzo Piano's Eridania sugar factory does indeed have a few issues with sound, a simple shoebox without palchi or balconies to compartmentalize the reverberations. Though it hardly matters to the majority who are so impressed with the inescapable warmth radiating from the rich stage, gorgeous ivory walls, and captivating sheet-glass backdrop. No worries, though...it's still a marvel of modern architecture, and OC urges those visiting Parma's historic landmarks to put Piano's Auditorium Niccolò Paganini on the agenda after sampling Verdi's own porky spalla cotta at the local restaurants.
The Harding/Grimaud/MCO night opened with Robert Schumann's Genoveva -- a work that premiered in Leipzig in the summer of 1850: critics were so harsh that only three performances followed, and the composer never wrote another opera. Wagner (whose Rienzi pretty much sucked, too, but he did keep writing opera anyway) can certainly be heard in the strains of the overture; Franz Liszt said of the work that it's the sister of Fidelio, but is missing Leonore's pistol. Though the selection was unpredictable, it was simply a warm-up for the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, who rightfully embraced it with a restrained, clear, almost aloof touch, that somewhat lacked the passion and tragedy that is reflected in the opera.
Then the piano was wheeled in by a couple of stagehands for Hélène Grimaud's entrance. She apparently showed-up for a summer wedding in white pants, white shoes, and white tails. (What, no white top hat, Hélène?). Although Beethoven's impressive cycle of piano concerti boast more popular selections (like his first & second), Hélène has had a deep connection with the mysterious qualities of his fourth concerto, having recorded it almost a dozen years ago with Kurt Masur and the New York Philharmonic (omg she looks like a litte deer bebbe!)
Beethoven's fourth concerto begins with the Allegro moderato, where the soloist is delivered from silence, and those half-dozen opening measures of piano solo can impress the tone of the entire 3 movements. Hélène marked it immediately with her trademark contradictions: timid and authoritative, staccato with undertone legato, reflective but decisive -- the Allegro was just that.
The second movement allowed Harding and the Mahler to radiate, and he showed his deep understanding of the lyrical movement of Beethoven's Andante. The orchestra remained stirring and grounding to Grimaud's rich & driven color, and Harding allowed her to breathe without crowding her in a balanced dialogue.
The Rondo Vivace was suffused with lightness all around: a driven, twinkling, gorgeous color, which Grimaud built to a stirring crescendo. The orchestra punched ahead in a gallop to which Grimaud responded playfully, building drama and movement with lots of affectations. And she's entitled...she's been analyzing this work for a decade. Grimaud exited the concert hall to more than half-a-dozen ovations, and despite calls for 'bis', she bowed-out gracefully and left the audience to digest her expert reading of Beethoven's opus 58.
To read about Daniel Harding's sublime Brahms's Third Symphony with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, click the link below...
Harding has come a long way since his excellent recording of Brahms third symphony in F major five years ago with the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen. Looking rangy and fit in his well-tailored suit (we're guessing Tom Ford...Harding's quite the dandy), the Principal Conductor of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra and their excellent synthesis is manifest as an extention of Harding's careful nurturing.
Overall, Harding chose a distilled sound, stripped of stormy, Teutonic burnished drama (like we're famililar with in the 4-disc Furtwaengler/Berlin Philharmonic Brahms from the 40s & 50s), overt staccati, or anything too distracting from the melodic dynamic of the movments. We're guessing that old-skooly influence came from he-who-shall-not-be-named. Still, Harding coupled that with a very modern, cool, even brash reading, one of the most fascinating than anything we've heard.
Without overwhelming us with the opening crescendo, Allegro con brio was elegant and soaring, and the color was never over-suffused nor was the movement restrained for Harding's ego. This was all about the orchestra -- a musical United Nations (the MCO boasts around 40 musicians from 20 different nations) -- who responded perfectly under their Music Director/Pricipal Conductor -- Harding wears his orchestra like a glove. Never did the work become pastoral or bucolic, as the Romantic color overwhelmingly dictates and sometimes falters. Harding's interpretation with the Mahler was fresh and inspiring, light and well-paced.
The blissful Andante had a lovely tempo, again regaining a new interpretation that is inspired, youthful and modern. The narrative that Harding rewrote via Brahms's symphonies set a benchmark that we'd like to see emulated.
Poco allegretto was Harding as his freest, and the work shaped beautifully under his baton-less gestures of great depth. The final Allegro drove it all home, showcasing the depthless musical understanding of the MCO and Harding's melodic reading. Overall, a lyric, quicksilver reading of a work that sometimes suffers from corny romanticism and nostalgic tempi...we'd like to see those under Harding's eminence learn from the Maestro.
Now check out this feature on Hélène Grimaud that was in Friday's Gazzetta di Parma: "I love music and wolves: Helene Grimaud's words", the headline.
Hélène first spoke about Beethoven's Fourth and said, "Without a doubt, this concerto is my favorite of Beethoven. I find it the most original and most poetic, and i can almost say that it could be considered philosophical."
Then she spoke about Harding and the MCO saying, "I find that Harding has a gigantic musical comprehension, culture and originality".