Piece by Piece, a Festival Takes Shape

02.19.07
Emanuel Ax
The New York Times

By Allan Kozinn

The New York Philharmonic is having it both ways in its festival Brahms the Romantic. By the end of the season the orchestra will have hit all the major orchestral works, including the "German Requiem," and in the aggregate this traversal unquestionably has the critical mass to constitute a festival.

There are more inventive and enterprising festivals an orchestra might offer of course, but if Brahms is what the Philharmonic wants to explore, then Brahms it is. So why did the orchestra wimp out, scheduling its Brahms in isolated clumps, scattered through the season?

A festival usually explores its theme in a concentrated run of concerts, so that its subject's full scope can be absorbed in a single, hedonistic burst. The music is transformed into an evolving structure. Relationships become apparent. And listeners who want either to study the music or simply to revel in it can do so in a context that means something. That is the difference between a festival and a bunch of related concerts adrift in a sea of unrelated ones, which is what the Philharmonic is doing.

The first installment was a single subscription week split into two programs. In Part 1, earlier in the week, Lorin Maazel led Brahms's First Serenade and First Piano Concerto, with Emanuel Ax as the soloist at Avery Fisher Hall. Part 2, beginning on Saturday evening, was the logical sequel: the Second Serenade and the Second Piano Concerto, with Mr. Ax again at the piano.

It takes considerable stamina and focus for a pianist to play both Brahms piano concertos in a week, but Mr. Ax has always been a superb Brahmsian, and he clearly didn't find the task daunting. The salient feature of his account of the Concerto No. 2 in B flat was a fluid rubato that created the impression of a natural, organic breath and helped make this war horse sound fresh and alive.

Striking as well was his sense of detail, evident in everything from his sharply accented phrasing in the opening movement and his supple unfolding of the Andante, to the vividness and sheer electricity in his pulse-quickening rendering of the Allegro appassionato.

There was a lively sense of give-and-take between Mr. Ax and Mr. Maazel, and the orchestra matched Mr. Ax in vitality. There was also much to admire in Mr. Maazel's leisurely reading of the Serenade No. 2 in A, a work that takes its title seriously some of the time, affording entertaining moments of shapely melody and almost danceable rhythms, but that also offers moments of greater depth and barely suppressed symphonic ambition. Brahms scored the work for reduced orchestra, with only woodwinds and low strings, and the Philharmonic played it with an appealing warmth of tone.