Concert Review: Brahms 125 with Arnaldo Cohen – 26 Mar 2022 | The Flying Inkpot
Felix Mendelssohn Symphony No. 3 in A Minor “Scottish”, Op. 56
JOHANNES BRAHMS Piano Concerto No. 1 in D Minor, Op. 15
Orchestra of the Music Makers
Lien Boon Hua, Conductor
Arnaldo Cohen, Piano
School of the Arts Concert Hall
26 March 2022, 7:30pm.
Review by Derek Lim
What a relief it is that Covid measures have finally been loosened up! In past weeks, arts performances – including theatre productions – have been allowed to increase audience capacity to 100% of the hall (for settings of up to 1,000 pax), while in just a few days we’ll be able to face the great Singapore outdoors sans face mask. Some presenters have found themselves scrambling to fill up seats with the rapid changes and surely this performance – played over two nights to accommodate audiences – was similarly affected. But what a joy it was to be able to once again hear a full orchestral performance!
Led by conductor Lien Boon Hua, this evening of Mendelssohn and Brahms was just the ticket to get things in full swing once again. A slight departure from their late-Romantic, 20th century comfort zone, the Orchestra of the Music Makers (OMM) took on Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony head-on with a spirited, long-breathed rendition of the work that focussed more on the larger picture than the details of the score.
With the violas seated on the outside rather than the cellos, some of the inner voices were lost – as was that of the double basses – in this hall whose acoustics can sometimes sound bright and harsh. The first movement’s climaxes were appropriately fiery and crackling under Lien’s baton, even if he wasn’t always the most responsive to its sudden mood changes.
The symphony found OMM in generally good form, with much colourful and characterful playing from the principal clarinet and resoundingly punchy brass and wind in the second movement Scherzo, while the Adagio’s graceful song without words was played meltingly on the strings.
Compared to this, the Finale was just a bit prosaic, with the minor key passages before the coda a little short on expressiveness and colour, and the coda itself lacking that last ounce of excitement.
The evening’s big attraction was of course Brazilian pianist Arnaldo Cohen, with Brahms’ first Piano Concerto. Lien and the OMM found even more commitment here – well-played though the Mendelssohn was – with youthful impetuousness in the turbulent opening. With granitic power and chords like thunderbolts, they clearly had a lot more to say about this concerto and everything felt much more energized, especially in the lower strings.
Having set the stage so promisingly, Cohen’s piano solo – technically assured, musical and later, commanding – should have been a shoo-in for an all-round satisfying interpretation. Alas, it was not to be. In spite of his numerous merits, even Cohen could not totally overcome the challenges with his instrument – the one-dimensional sounding Steinway grand on stage tonight. Brittle and bright, it was constantly too loud in relation to the orchestra – perhaps the position of the lid would have made a difference – and refused to blend in with the OMM even in the many passages where the soloist accompanies the orchestra. The first piano entrance, more or less taken at the same tempo as the passages that precede it, felt resolutely unpoetic, brazenly loud even, where it should sound plaintive, undermining the adversarial drama between piano protagonist and orchestra antagonist which drives the first movement.
It is difficult to tell how much of what one hears in an interpretation is due to the instrument and how much the soloist, but allow me to intuit – in this case, having heard Cohen on recording and many years ago at the Singapore International Piano Festival, and being familiar with his ability to draw colour – this was mostly the piano’s fault.
This was a particular pity, seeing as Cohen had the full measure of the solo part’s difficulty, with ringing, powerful octave trills masterfully played. He guided the orchestra (and conductor) gently through the music, with some thrilling passages in a largely extroverted interpretation – the passage beginning with the rising octave 4ths was particularly memorable. At age 73, he was also indefatigable, with securely thundering octaves.
Cohen phrased the second movement Adagio’s central soliloquy lovingly and here there were glimmers of Brahmsian heaven. But just like listening to a mono recording, you had to infer what he was trying to achieve from the disappointing piano – it was a performance that was downplayed rhetoric and strove for beauty.
The Finale fared best, with a muscular interpretation of the solo part. Technically wonderfully managed, Cohen’s lightness of touch was showcased here in the gossamer arpeggios after a masterfully played cadenza quasi fantasia, but again the glassy piano stymied any attempts at colour – so important, especially in the passages where the piano pushes the music toward optimism and exhorts the orchestra toward the triumphant march. Though his musicality and experience were undeniable, the instrument and its balance against the orchestra made this a flawed outing for me.
Much easier to enjoy were his two encores – Chopin’s ‘Minute’ Waltz and Prokofiev’s ‘Ridicolosamente’ from his Visions Fugitives, Op.22 – both wittily played and in the latter, acerbically stated.
May Mr Arnaldo Cohen return – and hopefully with a better piano!