Bordeaux gets a rich mix of Brahms and contemporary

by Michael Johnson Michael Johnson is a music writer and critic with special interest in piano. He spent nine years on the board of the London International Piano Competition and has written extensively on music for leading publications, including the International New York Times, Clavier Companion, The Washington Times, American Spectator, International Piano and the website Facts & Arts. He spent four years in Moscow as a correspondent and also worked as a journalist in Paris, London and New York. 05.12.2015

British pianist Paul Lewis delivered a silken, stormy and violent performance of the colossal Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1 in D-minor Op. 15 Thursday evening (Dec. 3), joined by the Orchestre Nationale Bordeaux Aquitaine in the city’s new Auditorium. Repeated curtain calls and ten minutes of rhythmic clapping attested to his success with the public.

Lewis is an unassuming musician (originally a cellist) of humble North-England origins and slight build, who develops impressive pianistic force, alternating with a lilting lyricism, to the keyboard.  Beethoven and Schubert dominate his repertoire, leaving his Brahms somewhat neglected but resulting in a certain freshness in this 50-minute work, one of the longest of the genre.

Paul Lewis as seen by the author, Michael Johnson

The late English critic Donald Tovey called the concerto a piece of “unprecedented tragic power” and both Lewis and conductor Paul Daniel exploited the potential of Brahms’s agonies to the maximum. The opening blast alone is worthy of Beethoven’s Ninth. Brahms then makes the pianist wait for nearly five minutes as themes jostle for their place in the exposition.  Lewis finally made his entry, played so quietly he might have been at a solo recital. 

Indeed the concerto abounds in solo passages, which allowed Lewis to demonstrate his understanding and technical mastery of the conflicting moods that Brahms weaved together.

The program ended with more sumptuous Brahms, the Symphony No. 1 in C-minor Op. 68, an unabashed continuation of the Beethoven legacy, sometimes nicknamed “Beethoven’s Tenth”. Familiar themes emerge pleasantly amid chaotic statements, leaving this reviewer, and to all evidence much of the audience, emotionally exhausted.

No doubt equally depleted was conductor Paul Daniel, who spares nothing in his physical involvement in such great works. A dancer manqué, he somehow arches his long frame over the woodwinds, the brass, the strings and even the distant the tympanist who has a powerful supporting role in this work. To draw power from his players he fairly levitates, with both feet leaving the ground in allegro passages.

Daniel was perhaps at his best with the impressive opening number, a lively and colorful piece by young French composer Guillaume Connesson. Titled Flammenschrifft (letter of fire), it opens with head-clearing force, designed to portray Beethoven as “a man in anger”. This brief, refreshing piece (ten minutes long) certainly conveys fury and unrest – and tests the orchestra for sustained power-production. Conductor Daniel was furious as well (in the artistic sense) holding the players together while eliciting references to an array of modernist composers. Connesson took his title from Goethe’s Marienbad Elegy. 

Known to Bordeaux audiences from previous performances, Connesson is a prolific Paris-based composer with a large oeuvre of symphonic work behind him. This piece is Part One of a tryiptych. At the end, I longed to  hear the rest, if only to see how Connesson would develop his interesting ideas. 

He was in the audience and took a bow before and after the performance of his work.

I tracked the composer down during intermission and asked him for the inspiration behind Flammenschrifft. He said Beethoven dominated but he could hear Shostakovich and Stravinsky here and there. I was sure I heard the ghost of Prokofiev but Connesson said he did not consciously draw on his work. “If he is in there it must be because he is in my DNA.” 

Daniel and ONBA director general Thierry Fouquet are to be commended for mixing classical-romantic repertoire with the works of living composers, a decision that serves music in the best way.

 

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