In the middle of April I heard three chamber-music concerts on the main stage of Carnegie Hall, and they were all, quite frankly, great.
The first was the complete Brahms piano quartets, played by a dream ensemble that included Leif Ove Andsnes on the piano, James Ehnes on the violin, Tabea Zimmerman on the viola, and Clemens Hagen on the cello. (The violinist was supposed to be the marvelous Christian Tetzlaff, who had to cancel at the last minute to await the birth of his child. Most of the audience was understandably nervous at losing this outstanding player, but they didn’t know what I did: that Ehnes is pretty terrific too. When he played, they found out.) I had never heard all three of these quartets played together before—they are very long, ranging from 36 to 52 minute each—and it turned out to be one of those profound experiences comparable to hearing a Shostakovich or a Bartok cycle. The time scale of composition was incredibly compressed (I think Brahms wrote them all within a single decade, and then wrote no others), but the distance from Piano Quartet #1 to Piano Quartet #3 is like that between early Beethoven quartets and late ones. It was solid, intense music in every case, but it was something more by the end—reaching toward the impossible, musically, and almost getting there. And these musicians did Brahms full honors.
The second concert was the wildly applauded and fully sold out performance of Yo Yo Ma and Emmanuel Ax in the complete Beethoven sonatas for piano and cello. I have only to say the names and you know how good it was. And yet, as I listened to even the most delicate cello notes waft their way successfuly to me in my Carnegie Hall seat, it occurred to me that I would have enjoyed it more in a smaller space. It was not a question of audibility, but of intimacy: a chamber collaboration, especially one involving strings, is like a familial event, whispering its music in your ears, and it needs a familial-sized auditorium to go with it. Carnegie Hall’s Stern auditorium is many great things, but it is not intimate—and realizing this about the Ma/Ax concert made me understand that, had I not been so gripped by the revelation of the Brahms sequence, I would have felt the same way then. Music like this just does not belong in a huge hall.
So it was with some trepidation that I attended Jeremy Denk’s afternoon concert a few days later. He was going to be all alone onstage, playing an English suite of Bach’s, a late Schubert sonata, and a weird series of ragtime-related pieces. Would the piano hold up to the challenge? Strangely, it did. Something about the sound of a piano on its own, even when it is at its quietest, projects in a way that chamber music with strings and piano does not. Of course it would have been nicer to hear him from close up—it is almost always nicer to hear solo musicians from close up—but in this case Denk made the concert feel as if it were taking place in his living room. He did this in part by speaking to us about the weird ragtime sequence, explaining his reasoning for each choice (from seventeenth-century Byrd through twentieth-century Joplin to modernist pieces by Hindemith, Stravinsky, and Nancarrow). And he also did it by ordering these pieces, not chronologically, but in a way that made us hear the interplays between them. It was a thrilling concert, and to my surprise it was not the elegant Bach nor the highly moving Schubert that accounted for my delight. Rather, it was the sense Denk gave me of sitting over his shoulder as he chose those ragtime pieces and thought, through both his fingers and his brain, about what connected them.
And then, on April 20, I finally got to hear a concert that didn’t just survive the size of Carnegie Hall, but used it to the full. This was the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of Mariss Jansons, playing Shostakovich’s seventy-minute Leningrad Symphony. I ignored all the stuff in the program about whether the symphony was about Stalin’s depredations or Hitler’s: such theories are all crap, if you ask me, and the music speaks directly enough for itself. Some people consider it simpleminded, and it does rely heavily on repetition; it also plays on the emotions in an almost movie-soundtrack way. (Shostakovich was, of course, a brilliant creator of movie soundtracks, as his Lear and his Hamlet both demonstrate.) But neither of these facts detracts one bit from the power of the performance, when it is as good as this one was. I felt the floor and the seat shaking beneath me as the snare drums and the cymbals and even the double-bass pizzicatos lent the piece their huge percussive sound. And I wondered if this music—written for starving Russians besieged during the Second World War, and now played for a comfortable American audience by a German orchestra on what was coincidentally the anniversary of Hitler’s birthday—would ever cease to move people. I hope not.