4th May 2019
For his recent pair of programs guest conducting the New York Philharmonic over the past two weeks, Semyon Bychkov has made a point of combining familiar repertoire with new discoveries. At the end of April, it was a Brahms symphony with the American premiere of Thomas Larcher’s Symphony no. 2 (Kenotaph), a response to the tragedy of refugees who have drowned in the Mediterranean. The Russian returned to the podium for a second program that placed Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben side-by-side with a piece that might as well have been a premiere: the last time the NY Phil performed the Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra(Op.88a) by Max Bruch was in 1917.
Bruch’s score is a sunset piece completed in 1915, when the long-lived composer was in his late 70s. He tailored it from a pre-existing orchestral suite (begun in 1904) in response to a request from Ottilie and Rose Sutro, an American piano duo who had come to know Bruch during their student years in Berlin. The sister pianists premiered it with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski in 1916 and then brought it to the NY Phil the following year.
Bruch himself apparently never heard his Concerto for Two Pianos performed and strangely kept his distance from it as well as from the suite from which it emerged, neither of which he wanted to publish. To simplify the piece’s demands for their abilities, the Sutro sisters revised and cut without Bruch’s knowledge and even finagled their way into getting the copyright for themselves. The unadulterated original score resurfaced only half a century after Bruch’s death. (It had to wait until 1989 to receive its British premiere.) The NY Phil concert in David Geffen Hall marked just the second time that the orchestra has played the concerto – and the first time it presented the score Bruch actually composed.
It’s understandable that James Keller’s entertaining program notes describe the bizarre and sordid history behind the concerto at length: the music itself is not particularly notable, even when serving as the vehicle for the stylishly virtuosic flair of Katia and Marielle Labèque. Indeed, it was often hard to be convinced why the work should exist as a concerto for two pianos in the first place. (Bruch’s suite gave a major role to solo organ.) Cast in four movements, it alternates between neoclassical posturing – of a stern and somber, not playful, variety – and the melancholy Romanticism mostly associated with this composer. Without knowing the date beforehand, most would assume it was written in the previous century and not guess that it actually postdates Ein Heldenleben.
The opening movement, for example, unrolls like a prelude, with the pianos joining in lugubrious, stately stride (part of the original suite was inspired by the site of a Corpus Christi procession the composer had watched while vacationing on Capri). Bruch’s intertwining of the keyboards with the orchestra at times brought to mind the spirit of Stokowski’s heavy-handed Bach transcriptions. The Adagio is a lovely nocturne brushed by gauzy strings, but little in the work as a whole is really memorable, and the solo spotlight moments for the two pianos rely too much on predictable formulas.
Still, it could hardly have more eloquent champions than Bychkov and the Labèques, who even recorded the piece a quarter century ago and who revive it on their programs from time to time. The sisters, dressed in reverse-pattern black-and-white suits, were flawlessly in sync and sensitively attuned to the orchestral accompaniment shaped by Bychkov. Of far greater musical interest was the encore they offered of part of Philip Glass’s wondrous Four Movements for Two Pianos, which found them building inexorable waves that paired logic and affect convincingly.
The Strauss part of the program after intermission devoured any lingering memory traces of Bruch’s underwhelming score. If the programmatic combination proved a bit awkward, the pairing of Bychkov and the NY Phil was magnificent and deeply satisfying. Ein Heldenleben can come across as intolerably distended, even sorely out of focus, for long stretches in the absence of a firm vision and committed musicianship. These were happily in abundance for this outsize tone poem – a kind of summation of the young Strauss’s state-of-the-art orchestral technique up to that point.
Bychkov’s firm control of the piece’s narrative spine left plenty of room to elicit characterful phrasing and expression from each section of the orchestra. “The Hero’s Enemies” evoked Beckmesser-like cartoonishness, and we were in effect treated to a second concerto in the lengthy “The Hero’s Companion” section as concertmaster Frank Huang traced a vividly memorable portrait of the composer’s complex, contradictory wife Pauline; the violinist’s long pauses between phrases showed a keen dramaturgical sensibility. Completely at home with Straussian polyphony – its harmonies and colors – Bychkov gave the score’s epic crescendos a powerful, inevitable shape, like a river surging from ice melt.