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In Concert- Sight and Sound

D. T. Max’s Profile in the magazine this week of the individualistic pianist Hélène Grimaud—and, in particular, his discussion of her interpretive audacity and her emphasis on making a concert a noteworthy “emotional event”—converges happily with my experience at Carnegie Hall on Friday night, where the Budapest Festival Orchestra, conducted by Ivan Fischer and joined by the pianist Andras Schiff, performed music by Schubert and Bartok.

That night, the notion of “seeing” a concert got to the essence of the  experience. When the orchestra took to the stage, prior to Fischer’s entrance,  and got into formation for the first number, Schubert’s “Die Zauberharfe” overture, it was clear that something was up: pressed up against the conductor’s  podium were four violinists and a woodwind trio, with a fourth wind player, a  bassoonist, seated in the front row just beside it. The theatrical,  psychological, and musical ingenuity of the choice soon became clear—these  musicians were in the foreground of the soundscape. Fischer’s communication with  them was energized (strange thing about conducting, as if musicians were  performing in response to an interpretive dancer who performs to the music in  his or her head), and he was telling us something about Schubert’s own musical  conception, which the performance itself reflected—the chamber-music  spotlighting joined with graceful tempi to bring out the filigree of the  phrasing and exposed, in a section that dwindled to silence, the delicate pathos  that shadows Schubert even in music of quasi-Italianate exuberance.

And that was just the curtain-raiser; in the performance of Bartok’s First  Piano Concerto that immediately followed—with a quartet of percussionists  arrayed right in front of the conductor in a place usually devoted to  strings—Schiff and Fischer toned down the usual stark savagery of the rhythms,  not to popularize or sell the modernistic music to a New York audience but to  revel in its extraordinary detail. Rather than mere rhythmic drive, Fischer and  Schiff exposed a panoply of inner rhythms, of short phrases and jolts that  reveal the fascinating complexity of Bartok’s musical construction. (Conductor,  soloist, and orchestra are, of course, Hungarian, and they play as if they feel  the rhythms, macro and micro, in their bones.) Fischer brought out, in the  percussion-heavy writing, the eerie chill of the string writing, to lay bare  sophisticated dissonances, and exposed the subtly divergent instrumental  textures that went into seemingly unified phrases. It’s as if he were trying to  get into Bartok’s head, into Bartok’s ear, to recreate not so much an annotated  sound-world but Bartok’s own musical imagination.

After intermission, the method reached a glorious apogee in their performance  of Bartok’s Third Piano Concerto, which he wrote in his final home, at 309 West  57th Street, in 1944, during his terminal bout with leukemia. It’s a piece  that’s celebrated for its gracefulness and its lyricism; Schiff and Fischer  found its expansive, expressive grandeur while also highlighting its immensely  complex sense of harmony. Passages that, in other recordings, seemed merely  warm, here burst forth like Rachmaninoff, and lyrical interludes sang with a  glittering urban melancholy, like a Rhapsody in Gray—all the while luxuriating  in the ambiguous and intricate tonalities. The opening of the slow  movement—still and delicate—was played by Schiff with an aching, percussive  poignancy, as if it were Bartok’s agonized lament for war-martyred Hungary, and  the robust finale played like a rage against the dying of the light, Bartok’s  own and the world’s. Pianist, conductor, orchestra made the case for this  compositional latecomer, this historical afterthought, as one of the grand and  great piano concertos, as well as one of the great compositional testaments.

The physical organization of the orchestra for the concluding work,  Schubert’s Fifth Symphony, also brought a surprise: four double-basses played  separately, one in the back, one embedded among the string sections on the  sides, and one up front facing the podium. As soon as the music started,  Fischer’s idea became clear. Schubert is, after all, the composer of the two  greatest pieces of chamber music that feature a double-bass—the Octet and the  Trout Quintet—and, by highlighting the importance of the instrument for Schubert  in a symphony that, by and large, is bright and jolly, he connected its  sound-universe to that of the great and tragic Schubert—the Unfinished Symphony,  the last Piano Sonatas, the shattering String Quintet (with its two cellos).  Fischer practiced a sort of compositional politique des auteurs—he’s as  much a critic-in-action as a performer. (And a showman he is, without  sacrificing a whit of musical substance or depth.) In making the composers’ musical mind the subject of his concert, he and his orchestra and his soloist  delighted the ear, stimulated the intellect, stirred the emotions—and even  enriched aesthetic morality with the connection of music to lived experience,  the composers’ and his own.

I wonder how much of this great experience would have come through at home,  listening to it on radio or on a CD, without seeing it—whether it had to be seen  to be heard—and whether its power depended on presence or would have been  transmitted by a television broadcast or video recording. Which brings up the  question of the filming of classical music in movies, and leads inevitably to  the string quartet in “First Name: Carmen” and to the amateur orchestra that  Cary Grant conducts in “People Will Talk,” and from there to the poignantly  symbolic recording of Brahms’s Second Piano Concerto in “A Letter to Three  Wives,” the haunting use of Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony in “Kiss Me Deadly”…

Richard Brody, The New Yorker