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Orchestrated Delight from Leipzig

Washingtonians—everyone living in the area knows this—are a funny breed: they care enough to pretend to care about good music, but not enough to dress well for it. They douse every performance in standing ovations but at the same time somehow manage to rush off to the parking lot before the last note has even stopped reverberating.

Those grumbles out of the way, it was all giddy anticipation for one of the most promising Washington Performing Arts Society concerts of the year: on October 16, the Gewandhaus Orchestra Leipzig came to town under Maestro Herbert Blomstedt, and they brought with them Mikhail Pletnev as the soloist in the Brahms D minor Piano Concerto. Though Pletnev looked glassy, spaced out, uncomfortable, and bloated (at the intermission I heard an audience member joke that he should lay off the cocaine for a while... talk about how rumors get started!), his playing was anything but. In his hands the Brahms concerto became sensuous, sexy even... agile, tender, and lyrical like a fresh and lovely country girl, shy and feisty at the same time, with an earthy intelligence.

The orchestral balance was very good for the most part, though the Gewandhaus came dangerously close to drowning Pletnev out on two or three occasions in the first movement.

The orchestral prelude of the work isn't necessarily my favorite and part of why I find the piece itself fraught with a few problems. Defying audiences' and experts' consensus of some 150 years, I will stick my neck out to say that the D minor is a beautiful, in parts even sublime, but not a great work. For that it lacks the unifying idea, the coherent line that pulls you from the first to the last movement. Instead it seems more like several gorgeous moments attached to each other. Every so often you will become aware of it, and then it recedes from the immediate consciousness again.

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J.Brahms, Piano Concertos,
E.Gilels / E.Jochum

Pletnev (not unlike Emil Gilels on his famous recording) managed to keep it together more than anyone else I've heard this work with. He took it in a manner that suggested that he sat back, had it come his way. It was crystalline and splendid. It probably even deserved the (sadly automatic) standing ovations.

Symphony No. 2 in D Major, a much later work, was next in the all-Brahms program. Blomstedt's conducting and the Gewandhaus's playing continued to be unobtrusive, subtle, plenty energetic when and where necessary, calmly flowing otherwise, with a great (but not blaring) horn section that, just as in the concerto, worked like a well-oiled machine.

Blomstedt's silver, light flock of forward combed hair flicked around gaily with every of his many involved movements. Looking like a gentle, if stern, schoolmaster of days past, he led the Gewandhaus to a fine, filigreed sound without having to coax or pull or beat out anything from this surprisingly young but terribly mature orchestral body with the confidence of a 261-year tradition.

The second movement, nowadays the most popular movement of any of Brahms's symphonies, was the only one that the audience in its premiere did not demand a da capo of... but even then critics and friends of Brahms had realized how sublime it truly is. It was, like the rest of the symphony, delivered in a magisterial and very satisfying way. The last chord had not reverberated, ... you know it: standing ovations and car keys. But neither that nor the—as always—dismal program could even dent a most splendid musical afternoon in Washington.

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