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ARCHIVE: HSO (November 2019)

Updated: Nov 14, 2022

Originally published 11/17/2019

At Jones Hall this evening, the Houston Symphony presented a program of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and Brahms' Symphony No. 2, conducted by Fabien Gabel. Emmanuel Ax was soloist in the Beethoven. The Houston Symphony sounded like a carryover from the stellar Beethoven 2nd Symphony led by Marek Janowski two weeks ago. Their playing provided solid evidence that health is contagious, as they again played with unified articulations, scrupulous attention to dynamics, and excellent balance within and between sections. This was achieved even without clear instructions from the podium. Gabel’s excessive motions did not always reflect the dynamics and character of the music. The concerto begins with a martial theme that contrasts with a lyrical theme. This alternation of staccato and legato has informed music since Bach, and is the basis of sonata form. The conductor’s baton should reflect these changes of character, but that was not always the case this evening. Gabel’s movements seemed intent on showing how “musical” he is, which places the focus on himself rather than on the music.

It is hard to imagine any pianist alive who knows the Beethoven piano concertos better than Manny Ax. He does not display his technique or musicality, he just puts them to use with stunning effect. He is not simply a soloist but a collaborator with the other musicians on stage. He takes a chamber music approach, turning towards the orchestra rather than the audience. He played every note, but many pianists can do that. With Ax, every note was colored and shaped to express the music. His touch on the keys produced exquisite diminuendos and pianissimos, as well as forceful but never forced fortissimos. The first movement cadenza, one of three written by Beethoven, had all the virtuosity and flexibility of a Bach toccata. While the concerto has a number of woodwind solos, the second movement is primarily a duet with the first clarinet. Mark Nuccio was the ideal partner with Ax, and together they produced some of the evening’s most memorable moments. At the conclusion of the second movement, Ax at first teased and then exploded into the Rondo finale. The country dance theme was joyful in all its iterations, with no small amount of humor on Beethoven’s part. The Jones Hall audience gave a spontaneous standing ovation, which led to a quiet encore of Chopin. Many artists can impress an audience with their playing, but all too few can express music in a way that captures an audience’s heart. Manny Ax has humanity coupled with humility, a trait all too rare in today’s world.

Gabel’s conducting style was better matched to Brahms the romantic. He encouraged richly sonorous playing from the orchestra, with generally excellent results. In the first movement, he showed a penchant for slowing the end of phrases. Since it was not tied to harmonic or structural events, it began to sound like an interpretive cliché. Even so, the first movement felt the most secure, tempo-wise. His tempo for the second movement dragged just a bit, even though it is marked Adagio non troppo (slow, but not too much). The third movement, marked Allegretto grazioso (Quasi andantino), was a bit too fast. While the final movement is marked Allegro con spirito, it also sounded too fast. Brahms sounds faster to the listener than the performer, largely due to the counterpoint.

For their part, the Houston Symphony sounded terrific. Substitute first horn Robert Johnson did an excellent job with his several solos, as did all of the woodwinds. Trombones and tuba are featured in this symphony more than trumpets, and their chords were finely tuned and balanced. Violas and cellos sang out the well-known “lullaby” theme in the first movement. The extended cello section solo in the second movement was afforded long lines (beginning up-bow!) and beautiful color changes on the D-string. The basses played their pizzicatos together with great accuracy, andhe timpani part was played sensitivity by Leonardo Soto. Guest concertmaster, the venerated Nick Eanet, led the first violins securely and unobtrusively, with excellent results.

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