Dec 5th 2015

Bordeaux gets a rich mix of Brahms and contemporary

by Michael Johnson

Michael Johnson is a music critic with particular interest in piano. 

Johnson worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his journalism career. He covered European technology for Business Week for five years, and served nine years as chief editor of International Management magazine and was chief editor of the French technology weekly 01 Informatique. He also spent four years as Moscow correspondent of The Associated Press. He is the author of five books.

Michael Johnson is based in Bordeaux. Besides English and French he is also fluent in Russian.

You can order Michael Johnson's most recent book, a bilingual book, French and English, with drawings by Johnson:

“Portraitures and caricatures:  Conductors, Pianist, Composers”

 here.

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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