Princeton Audiences Enjoy Encore Performance of Brahms Piano Concerto
By Nancy Plum
Tis the season to hear amazing pianists and the Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major of Johannes Brahms. In January, New Jersey Symphony presented Daniil Trifonov playing this work and next week, Philadelphia Orchestra brings the same concerto to the Kimmel Center stage. Princeton Symphony Orchestra brought its interpretation of Brahms’ majestic concerto to Richardson Auditorium this past weekend, featuring pianist Inon Barnatan, a longtime friend of the PSO. Led by Music Director Rossen Milanov, Saturday night’s performance (the concert was repeated Sunday afternoon) brought the Princeton Symphony Orchestra instrumentalists and Barnatan to the Richardson stage for an evening of 19th-century Viennese elegance and drama.
To warm up the audience for the Brahms concerto, the Orchestra presented a work composed in 2020 but influenced by a predecessor to Brahms. Fate runs through some of Ludwig van Beethoven’s most significant works, and American composer Carlos Simon drew from an 1815 journal entry of Beethoven for his one-movement Fate Now Conquers. Simon also derived musical structure for this piece from the second movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in A Major, creating musical gestures capturing the “unpredictable ways of fate.”
Beginning with fierce playing from the flutes, Fate Now Conquers was Beethoven-esque in its drama, rhythmically led by consistently strong playing by timpanist Jeremy Levine. Carlos Simon packed a great deal of musical action into the five-minute work, and conductor Milanov kept the Orchestra players moving the music forward, complemented by an elegant cello solo from Alistair MacRae.
Princeton Symphony Orchestra returned to Simon’s source material with their gracefully dramatic performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in A Major. Conducting from memory, Milanov built the drama well throughout the four-movement work while maintaining a Viennese lilt. Accents and sforzandi in the strings were always exact, and the overall instrumental palette was consistently light, even when at full strength. The overriding theme of this performance was joy as Milanov used dynamic contrasts, gradual crescendos and Beethoven’s abrupt silences to augment the lean and crisp orchestral playing. Pastoral wind solos were heard through all four movements, including from oboist Lillian Copeland, clarinetist Pascal Archer, flutist Catherine Gregory, and bassoonist Brad Balliett.
The second movement “Allegretto” in particular is a study in musical intensity, building through a repeated poetic ostinato passed around among instrumental sections. Milanov added dynamic contrasts to create an atmosphere of a methodical courtly dance. Pascal Archer’s clarinet line spoke well over the orchestral palette, and the inner instrumental voices could be well delineated within the texture. An elegant sonority was created between Copeland’s oboe and Gregory’s flute over the relentlessly driving rhythm of the ostinato. The brass sections were clean throughout the work, aiding the ensemble in maintaining drama until the end.
Pianist Barnatan brought his own brand of excitement and animation at the keyboard to Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major. Opening with an affirmative horn solo played by Jonathan Clark delicately answered by Barnatan at the keyboard, the first movement of the concerto was martial, with Barnatan firmly in control. Milanov chose not to conduct certain cadenza-like piano passages, allowing Barnatan to draw out the measures leading to orchestral themes and take his own lyrical time. Descending scales on the piano were light and clean, while full orchestral sections were dramatic. A second Clark horn solo was especially fluid against upper register “raindrops” on the piano, creating an Alpine atmosphere.
arnatan’s emphasis in the second movement was on “appassionato,” playing a forceful piano solo against lush orchestration and punctuating horns. Once again, Brahms showed his affinity for the horn with extended passages for piano and solo horn, effectively played by Barnatan and Clark. Cellist MacRae gave the hymn-like third movement grace and elegance, while Barnatan provided a languid and impressionistic piano solo. MacRae was also joined in solo passages by oboist Copeland, creating a smooth flow to the movement. Milanov barely conducted in these passages, allowing the music to play itself but effectively leading the Orchestra through transitions. A chipper and playful “Allegretto” closed the concerto, as Barnatan played crisply and precisely, clearly enjoying Brahms’ humorous musical side. As with New Jersey Symphony Orchestra’s performance last month, an encore between pianist and cellist featured a rarely-heard work for these two instruments, in this case the “Andante” movement of Rachmaninoff’s Sonata in G Minor for Cello and Piano. Barnatan and MacRae well demonstrated the exquisite sonorities between these instruments as cello and piano worked together as true partners.
Princeton Symphony Orchestra will present its next Classical Series performances on Saturday, March 11 at 8 p.m. and Sunday, March 12 at 4 p.m. in Richardson Auditorium. Conducted by Sameer Patel, this concert will feature the world premiere of William Harvey’s “Seven Decisions of Gandhi,” as well as music of Borodin and Tchaikovsky. Ticket information can be obtained by visiting princetonsymphony.org.