Concert photo, Steve J. Sherman

Sunday, February 4, 2024

Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City

Guest Reviewer, Susan Stempleski

Previously in Munich, and

Susan Stempleski writes… Back in Carnegie Hall for the first time since October 2019 when it performed a mixed repertory over two nights under Valery Gergiev, this Munich Philharmonic concert was the second of two Brahms programs conducted by the venerable Zubin Mehta. On this occasion Yefim Bronfman was scheduled to play Brahms’s Second Piano Concerto, but alas that was not to be. Carnegie Hall Artistic Director Clive Gillinson announced that because of illness Bronfman had been forced to cancel his appearance (he had played Concerto No.1 the evening before). As disappointing as this was, the good news was that the orchestra and Mehta had performed a complete Brahms cycle before coming to the US and would offer Symphony No.1 instead.

This unexpected pairing allowed us to hear the composer’s First and Second forays into the Symphony genre and appreciate the contrasts between the two. The more dramatic and serious C-minor First sounded appropriately majestic as the full-bodied orchestra rendered its rich layering of melodies readily distinguishable. After the tension of the opening Un poco sostenuto – where the timpani’s pulsating strokes against the rising strings and woodwinds were especially memorable – Mehta brought out the tenderness in the ensuing Andante and the lyrical beauty of the third movement, before releasing a powerful Finale. The radiant, warm strings, ravishing woodwinds and mellifluous brass were impeccable in their ensemble playing and loving in the delivery of many individual contributions, especially the violin solos by concertmaster Naoka Aoki.

Throughout the concert, Mehta showed himself to be a true master of Brahms. It did not matter that the eighty-seven-year-old maestro walked slowly and that he cut less than the dynamic figure he once presented. Leading the program while seated, and from memory, once he lifted his arms for the downbeat, he radiated vitality. Each gesture was clear and precise and went straight to the essential, with no need for anything flamboyant or extraneous.

He drew a glowingly lyrical reading of Brahms’s Second. Expansive in the opening movement, it was brisk and exhilarating in the Finale. Highlights of the middle movements included the expressive melody played by the cellos at the beginning of the affectionately detailed Adagio, and the delightfully delicate oboe solo in its graceful successor. This was a totally fresh and joyful interpretation, executed with great beauty of sound and phrasing, and an unmistakable accord between conductor and players. There was an encore: an exuberant account of Dvořák’s Slavonic Dance, Opus 46/8.