Two orchestras came to town, each bringing a pianist. The first orchestra to appear was from just down the road, Philadelphia. They played in Carnegie Hall with their chief conductor, Charles Dutoit. And their pianist was Maria João Pires, from Portugal.
She is very well-known from recordings, but not so well-known from personal appearances, at least here in New York. She has a big reputation for Chopin, and, in fact, played Chopin’s Concerto No. 2 in F minor.
In the first movement, she was competent—but also stiff, workmanlike. The music lacked its fluid nature. The closing rondo was much the same—competent, acceptable, but without flair. A wet noodle.
So, how did Pires acquire her big reputation? She gave the answer in the middle movement, Larghetto, which was a thing of beauty: graceful, sensitive and altogether musical. Chopin himself would have smiled.
Three nights later, an orchestra from Bavaria, the Bamberg Symphony, played in Avery Fisher Hall. They were led by their longtime chief, Jonathan Nott, an Englishman. And their pianist was Christian Zacharias, a German. He is a pianist who is capable of perfection, no less. Other nights, he is commendable all the same.
This was one of those nights. Zacharias played Beethoven’s Concerto No. 4 in G major. Its opening chord is hard to get right: You have to play all the notes together, with the top note, B, having prominence. Zacharias got it exactly right.
In the first movement at large, he had a few slips, but nothing major. His playing tended to be dry. Sometimes a bigger, fatter sound was desirable. But Zacharias obviously understood the logic of the music, and he was no-nonsense without being cold.
He is a conductor too, and, at the keyboard, he could not quite resist the urge to conduct the orchestra. He was champing at the bit to do so. Did this bother the actual conductor, on the podium? Ask Nott.
The second movement, that sublime creation, was matter-of-fact—very much so. Zacharias could have been a little freer. And the rondo could have been sprightlier and more graceful. But, again, you will want to hear Zacharias on any night, no matter what.
Incidentally, his concert clothes are those austere black pajamas, the modern uniform. It seems to suit the clinical side of his personality.
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