Awadagin Pratt thoroughly integrates Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 in a reciprocal exchange of ideas
By D. S. Crafts
October 18, 2015
Out of the starting gate with a bang came the new season of the New Mexico Philharmonic Classics. Now celebrating its fifth year as the Philharmonic, the orchestra played a thrilling inaugural concert of Brahms and Beethoven featuring pianist Awadagin Pratt and led by Brazilian-born conductor Marcelo Lehninger.
Once an Albuquerque resident and long a favorite on New Mexico stages, Pratt was earlier known as much for his brilliant playing as for his unorthodox manner of sitting at the piano. He has in recent years adopted a more conventional posture.
The Brahms Gypsy-flavored Hungarian Dance No. 6 in D Major served as appetizer to this concert from the heart of the orchestral repertoire, full of color and joyful high spirits for both players and audience.
As not uncommon with Brahms, the Piano Concerto No. 1 in d minor went through several transformations – symphony, two-piano version – before finally becoming the work that has been handed down to us.
Initially it was not well received. More often than not concertos of that time were gratuitous and superficial displays of virtuosity. This concerto was anything but. Perhaps because of its origin as a symphony, piano and orchestra are thoroughly integrated as much as any concerto on record. Pratt presented the work in precisely that spirit with a reciprocal exchange of ideas between piano and ensemble.
Lehninger molded the orchestral exposition in slow-paced, deliberate fashion, allowing the work to build to the more forceful development section. Pratt entered vehemently at that point with the full power of the piano in Brahms’ massive piano textures.
Pratt wove the Adagio as a delicate spider web of sound, almost too ephemeral for the spacious confines of Popejoy Auditorium. The dust had barely settled before he launched headlong into the robust, rugged character of the Rondo and the demonic fury of the key of D minor.
The greatest difficulty for a reviewer is trying to say something new (let alone fresh) about a work that has been played ad infinitum. The opening four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony are probably known to more people on the planet than any musical sequence in history. They have become a veritable cliché of doom or foreboding.
The opening Allegro movement has been used in a variety of comedy routines, most notably PDQ Bach’s. Certainly there is nothing that has not been said on the subject of reasonable interpretations by conductors. It is rather a matter of making the work “live” with the most vibrant and visceral passion, playing it with all the profundity, mystery and sheer brilliance contained in one of the benchmarkers of Western culture.
Lehninger and the New Mexico Philharmonic did that most successfully. The opening Allegro bristled with explosive passion, many wind details clearly heard. The Andante was both ominous and brilliant. The lugubriousness of the Scherzo set the stage for the ringing triumph of the Allegro. A fabulous reading of a timeless classic and an exceptional beginning to the new season.