Parents, what are your adolescent sons up to? Specifically any 19-year-olds. By age 19 (in 1830), Frédéric-François Chopin had already composed two concertos for piano and orchestra. The second of the two was published as “Piano Concerto No. 1 in E Minor,” Op. 11. With that gorgeous work, New Jersey Symphony Orchestra opened its concert Saturday, Nov. 29, with pianist Inon Barnatan at the keyboard and German conductor Stefan Sanderling on the podium. The program concluded with the dramatic “Symphony No. 4 in E Minor,” Op. 98, by Johannes Brahms (1885).
In an interview last week with zoomdune.com, soloist Inon Barnatan spoke of the difficulties many orchestras encounter when assaying Chopin’s orchestral works. Under maestro Stefan Sanderling’s skillful direction, the orchestra members gave no inkling of any problems. To the contrary, they dispatched the Chopin concerto as if it were second nature, pianist and players totally united and performing as if just one person.
While the orchestra ruled the stage for the first four minutes of the “Allegro maestoso risoluto” (majestic, resolute gladness) martial opening movement, the soloist moved his head very much in sync with the rhythm and basked in the orchestra’s sound enveloping him. He tackled the imperious entry and its abundant stately chords, cascading scales and glissando. Inon Barnatan negotiated the passages of delicate ornamentation and ravishing finger work, never more breathtaking than when he made the grand piano “whisper.” He even unbelievably threw in embellishments here and there. The orchestra partnered him in coherent interplay.
Inon Barnatan, in last week’s interview, described the piece’s second movement as “the most gorgeous song in the tradition of the best operas of the bel canto style.” Marked “Romanze: Larghetto” (romance: a bit broadly), it was easy to imagine a beautiful, quiet voice following the piano’s seductively sinuous line. Laurie Shulman’s “Program Notes” intriguingly mention the composer’s intentions to set to music a moonlight scene between him and his beloved. The pianist deftly brought out such encoded feelings of personal yearning over the orchestra’s hushed patina. You could hear a pin drop in the auditorium.
The rousing “Rondo: Vivace” (a lively recurring theme) brought this elegant work to a stirring conclusion. The speed and Polish rhythm that propel the movement gave the pianist the opportunity to shine with intricate, dizzying passage work. Inon Barnatan fired off the notes and the numerous scales going both ways on the keyboard, only to top their technical difficulty with one two-handed trill after another. You would never suspect a teenager had fashioned such a striking work.
The audience erupted in spontaneous cheers, rewarding the pianist for a spectacular debut. Had they sustained their enthusiasm a bit longer, he no doubt would have returned the reward with an encore.
After the break, the concert’s second half got underway with Brahms’ Fourth Symphony, the last of the composer’s strictly symphonic output during a productive 10-year period (1876-1885). Only his “Concerto for Violin and Cello in A Minor,” Op. 102, “Double Concerto,” came along later, in 1887.
Maestro Sanderling skillfully guided the ensemble, overcoming initial imbalances between the string and woodwinds sections. The gentle doublets wafting leisurely in the symphony’s opening “Allegro non troppo” (glad, just not too glad)—which figure prominently in various guises throughout the movement—gave no clue to the dramatic passages to come.
The second movement, “Andante moderato” (at a moderate walking pace), rises on the tonic scale to E Major, from the opening movement’s E Minor. A quartet of French horns quietly introduces a soothing, flowing theme, taken up readily by woodwinds. The theme develops steadily until a staggering majestic theme from the first movement interrupts. The players struggled with the exceedingly slow tempo fixed by their leader.
Brahms directed that the third movement go briskly in playful gladness (“Allegro giocoso”) and changed the key to bright C Major. It was the brass section’s turn to rollick with the rest of the orchestra, and they went for quite a romp. This time Maestro Sanderling gave the ensemble free rein, and they hurtled through the stirring movement, generating excitement that compensated for the sluggish start.
The darkness of E Minor returned for the closing “Allegro energico e passionato” (energetic, passionate gladness). Brahms paid tribute to Johann Sebastian Bach by ending his symphony with a gigantic passacaglia, stating the opening theme in just eight measures and then restating it in seemingly endless variations, steadily increasing the tension and picking up the pace. The mighty NJSO united in this most collaborative piece, and Stefan Sanderling brought the work to its ebullient conclusion.
Throughout the entire performance, the audience remained unusually quiet, paying close attention. It was good to see that the recent cold weather had not adversely affected their collective health, and it was a welcome change to hear virtually no spluttering and hacking during brief pauses and quieter passages.