Carnegie Hall
Thursday, February 7th , 2013
Christian Zacharias, piano
The Orchestra of St. Luke’s
Pablo Heras-Casado, principal conductor
Beethoven – Ouverture to Egmont, Op.84
Chopin – Piano Concerto no. 2 in F minor, Op.21
Debussy/Zender  – Five Préludes
Schumann – Symphony no. 4 in D minor, Op. 120



The evening began at another New York landmark, the Carnegie Deli, across 7th Ave. from the homonymous Hall. Actually, the plan was to go to the Deli for chopped chicken livers and cheese cake, and then we realized there was a superb concert across the street. The beauty of being in New York is that you can easily find tickets even at the shortest notice. Of course, concerts do sometimes sell out, but, strangely, those that do are not usually the ones I want to go to (and if you think that is a stuck-up remark, you are quite right!).

So we feasted on the splendid Jewish fare. The Carnegie Deli is still almost the same as it was 40 years ago, the portions just as deliriously outsized, the waiters and waitresses just as friendly, the food just as delicious. The only problem is that you wind up eating a week’s worth of calories in a single meal. But, oh, the cheese cake! So much for feeding only the mind.

The treat across the street, of a completely different nature, was also quite extraordinary.  I was looking forward to hearing the wonderful Christian Zacharias, but I was a little worried about the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, and I didn’t know its young Spanish conductor. As it turned out, there was very little to complain about.

The program was absolutely tame, no great surprises, except for the Debussy of which I shall talk about in a while. But I have nothing against tame programs, on the contrary. As stimulating as it is to go to a concert to discover unfamiliar works, there is something marvelously soothing about hearing staples. When the music is not well known to you, you are obviously tenser and you must almost strain to keep your attention at the ideal level to absorb the new ideas. With a better known repertoire, you can anticipate and savor the music in a more leisurely way –but you also tend  to be more critical. It is no different from groping for your way in  unknown territory versus walking carefree along a familiar path.

After the first few bars of the Egmont, I was already completely taken by the elegant young Spanish conductor. His aplomb and precision helped him conduct with complete assurance a rather indifferent orchestra and lead the correct but slightly lackluster musicians into an original and engrossing interpretation. The dynamics and the rhythmic accents were particularly well thought out and Heras-Casado’s soberly expressive body language was totally in sync with the music.

The Steinway was brought to the forefront for the Chopin, and the lanky, slightly stooping Zacharias preceded his much younger colleague onto the stage. He was greeted with the ovation he deserves.

The 2nd Chopin concerto is not that thrilling to me. I much prefer to hear Brahms or Schumann or Beethoven, to speak only of the Romantic repertoire. But  Zacharias transformed the work and it definitely soared.  This is a concerto which can be played beautifully in many ways. It can sound luscious and luxuriant. It can have deep, even painful strains. It can oscillate between power and grace. It can also be completely destroyed in the hands of overzealous performers who opt for the syrupy and grandiloquent style. Zacharias has one of the most extraordinary articulations I have ever heard and all the nuances become crystal clear and gorgeous.  The truly Romantic spirit he displays is the antithesis of  schmaltz.  His beautifully contained lyricism reminds me of Clara Haskil’s  interpretation of the Schumann concerto, so you see, we are indeed at exceptional heights. And at no moment did Heras-Casado fall behind, he was an attentive and supportive partner throughout.

After the intermission came a so-called Debussy which was really not Debussy at all, and not very interesting either, though it did have its amusing moments. German composer Hans Zender orchestrated five of the piano preludes and I wonder why the program refered to Debussy, arranged by Zender. This was actually Zender working on themes by Debussy. The orchestration (or instrumentation, whichever way you prefer to call it) added nothing to Debussy’s wonderfully impressionistic and diaphanous music, but it did give Heras-Casado an opportunity to again demonstrate his remarkable talent for color and tempo, plus a great sense of humor.

Listening to this work made me think about the habit of arrangement in itself, one that was greatly used by Liszt, for example, to my deep irritation. I have never understood why he would want to arrange perfectly marvelous Schubert lieder for the piano, or shrink the Beethoven symphonies to keyboard size.  I know that Bach and Mozart also arranged to their hearts’ content, but it was more like composing on someone else’s acknowledged themes than simply transcribing pieces from one medium to another. Some other great composers, like Schoenberg, also did a great job of orchestrating and transcribing, so I guess that my ill will falls entirely on Liszt – again.

The Schumann symphony followed, a reworked opus, written as number 2 in 1841, but only published in 1851 as no. 4. Heras-Casado chose to perform the original version, which, according to the program notes, was Brahms’s favorite. And who will argue with Brahms? Well, actually, my companion Oboe did so, grumpily, but he has issues with the symphony, regardless of the version, finding Schumann’s orchestral output quite uninteresting. I agree that as an orchestrator, Schumann cannot hold a candle to Beethoven or Brahms, but I wouldn’t dismiss his orchestral works  that crudely (except for the excruciatingly boring Manfred). The main theme of this symphony is beautiful and wonderfully stated and restated. The orchestral accompaniments to the piano concerto and to the cello concerto are haunting. In this instance, Heras-Casado gave a very thoughtful and distinguished rendition which I enjoyed immensely. Definitely a personality to follow. But then, Christian Zacharias would not have agreed to play with anyone less talented.