The Munich Philharmonic and Valery Gergiev juxtaposed two major 19th century opuses, composed less than a decade apart, in their Carnegie Hall performance on Friday night. Nevertheless, if one would equate them with boundary markers, they would be facing opposite directions. Chronologically placed between Grieg’s and Brahms’ Second, Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto no. 1 in B flat minor, is a pinnacle of Romantic, virtuosic works. As imbued with romanticism as Bruckner's Seventh Symphony certainly is, its idiom belongs to a class of works that anticipate the music of the next century.

Valery Gergiev, Behzod Abduraimov and the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra
© Chris Lee

The soloist in Tchaikovsky’s most accomplished and popular concerto was the young and very talented Behzod Abduraimov. A pianist of impeccable technical credentials, he never over-emphasized his prowess, not even when rows of octaves amazingly sounded as played legato. His Tchaikovsky was less a display of power and agility and more about lyricism and subtlety, without ever sliding into sentimentality. He made clear his intentions from the initial chords that had nothing explosive, ringing instead like question marks, and continuing with piano playing of unusual fragility. It was not a “soloist vs orchestra” type of performance but a continuous effort to integrate the piano and the ensemble into a single sound tapestry. Echoing dialogues with strings or woodwinds came in various shades. The Uzbek pianist seemed to constantly listen to whatever other instrumentalists have to say, accompanying with deference the cello or the oboe in the Andantino semplice. In the last movement, the difficult synchronization during the piano scales, worked faultlessly. Overall, it was a version of exemplary fluency, with seamless switches from passionate to contemplative. At the same time, the feeling of attending a fresh interpretation of this true warhorse came naturally. Abduraimov and Gergiev never attempted anything odd just for the sake of “interestingness”; they just followed the score and relied on the music’s power to regenerate itself.

The indefatigable Gergiev can sometimes seem uninterested or aloof on the podium. Not on this first of consecutive nights leading the Munich Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall. After offering unwavering support to Abduraimov in Tchaikovsky, he conducted an exemplary version of Bruckner’s Seventh, a rather difficult fortress to conquer. Clean, alert but not hurried, and beautifully shaped, the rendition didn’t bring forward any particularly new insights into the compositional details. Gergiev tried instead to be as respectful as possible towards a Bruckner score that has undergone fewer changes than others from one edition to the next.

In an Allegro moderato which is not as profoundly marked by a “stop, breathe, go” pattern as other Bruckner symphonies’ outside movements, Gergiev’s approach had tension and impetus with well-built and not overblown climaxes at juncture points. From the third-bar appearance of the generous motif articulated by the solo horn and the cellos, to its quasi-apocalyptic rendition by the fortissimo blazing brass at the very end, the music flowed. One must remember that, a quarter century before Gergiev, the music director of the Munich Philharmonic was Sergiu Celibidache. His approach to Bruckner’s music must still be somehow engraved in the current generation of instrumentalists’ genes.

The music in the Andante – at least partially an elegy to Wagner’s death – had the proper weightiness. The violins-intoned theme sounded heartfelt and the brass-dominated final segment had the solemnity of the Siegfried’s Death interlude from Götterdämmerung. The Scherzo evoked a Pieter Bruegel-like image of a heavyset and graceless peasant invited to dance; cautiously skeptic initially, he is slowly caught in the whirlwind. Relatively short by Bruckner's standards, the Finale was, in Gergiev and the Munich Philharmonic’s vision, a fine-tuned balance between strings, woodwinds and brass, between delicacy and power, as the composer’s musical universe always strives to be.