Prelude to a Miss

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The New York Sun

On Wednesday night, Lorin Maazel began his fifth season as music director of the New York Philharmonic with a meat-and-potatoes program. What were the meat and potatoes? Beethoven’s “Egmont” Overture, Mozart’s Two-Piano Concerto in E flat, and the “Eroica” Symphony (Beethoven again). It was therefore a very E-flatty evening. Only the overture — in F minor and F major — departed from the evening’s key.

In the opening chords of that overture, the Philharmonic was precisely together, which was a good sign. And Mr. Maazel paced this section shrewdly. He went in for some unexpected dynamics, but they were not obtrusive ones. The middle section of the overture had what you wanted (and Beethoven wanted): solidity, robustness, suspense. And the final section — in F major — was both accurate and thrilling.

You can go for many a moon without hearing the “Egmont” Overture conducted and played so well. And I was reminded of Mr. Maazel’s extreme devotion to Beethoven. (A devotion perfectly justified, you will agree.)

Mozart wrote his duo-piano concerto for two of his favorite pianists: himself and his sister Nannerl. Like a good brother, he apportioned the parts equally. One does not dominate the other.

Mr. Maazel was somewhat surprising in the opening of the concerto: It was rather heavy and charmless, suggesting that the conductor was still in “Egmont” mode, his fist clenched. Worse, the two pianists — Yefim Bronfman and Emanuel Ax — were similarly heavy and charmless. This was particularly surprising from Mr. Bronfman. He is a superb Mozartean, but you would never have known it on this occasion. He played indifferently, severely, even grimly. He might have been visiting the dentist rather than performing Mozart. As for Mr. Ax, he played as he often does: competently, unremarkably.

Much of the time, the pianists’ passagework was not together. But, as I remarked when reviewing a performance of this work from Salzburg last month, you’re lucky if two hands are together, to say nothing of four.

In the opening of the third movement — the Rondeau — Mr. Maazel and the orchestra were again weirdly stiff. And so was the movement as a whole. This is one of the most delightful things Mozart ever wrote, but there was zero delight in it, no grace, no merriment — virtually no Mozart.

As regular readers know, I am no “period” fetishist — quite the contrary — but this entire performance was too heavy, bloated, lardbutted. And the playing, from all involved, was almost shocking for its mediocrity or outright badness. Oh, well — this is music, and life.

How about the “Eroica” Symphony after intermission? The opening notes were a mess: as disunited as Yugoslavia. And Mr. Maazel was curiously uninspired during the first movement. This, too, was heavy and stiff, “Eroica” Symphony or not. And the conductor engaged in those little Maazelian ritards that annoy rather than enhance or enchant.

If the first section of the “Egmont” Overture depends on pacing, the second movement of the “Eroica” — that funeral march — depends on pacing, too. In the best performances, it is inevitable, mesmerizing. But Mr. Maazel never let you forget his presence: his thinking and his work. You could see all the machinery. I thought of one of those pocket watches with the innards exposed.

To be sure, Mr. Maazel did some beautiful things in this movement. But it was more like a collection of poses — some of them impressive — than the whole it must be.

The third movement — the Scherzo — was surprisingly measured, or, if you like, slow. Nor did it have really a scherzo feel. The players should have been light on their feet; instead, Mr. Maazel had them wearing army boots.

And this is a good time to mention the Philharmonic horn section: They were splendid — unflubbing, musical — on Wednesday night, from the overture through to the end of the symphony. It crossed my mind that the Philharmonic’s regular horn section had been abducted.

Mr. Maazel launched right into the Finale, wasting no time at all. This was a good idea. Unfortunately, his players utterly blew that first note. In the course of this movement, Mr. Maazel was his characteristic self: He produced some bizarre, willful, wrongheaded moments; and he produced some fresh and insightful ones. I noticed things in the score — familiar as it is — that I had never quite taken account of. Mr. Maazel’s tempos were broad and expansive, which was fine. But he also allowed the music to take on a plodding quality — not so fine.

This was not really his night, although it was not a failure. After the “Egmont,”it could not be a total failure.

But that was actually the second piece we heard. For the last five years, I have written about Mr. Maazel’s handling of the national anthem, which the Philharmonic — like the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra — plays on opening night (and only on opening night). Mr. Maazel’s treatment of the anthem is not to everyone’s taste: He manages every phrase. But he manages those phrases very, very well. His anthem is always noble, stirring, and purposeful. And he takes care to involve and encourage the audience: He wants the anthem sung, not merely played.

It was a little slow Wednesday night. But, again, full of meaning, and you had to be grateful for that.

The Philharmonic’s season continues with Lorin Maazel conducting violinist Itzhak Perlman through September 19 (Lincoln Center, 212-875-5656).

The New York Sun

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