Classical pianists have more to contend with in the concert hall than they used to.
About a third of the way through the first movement of Brahms’ First Concerto at Orchestra Hall Thursday morning, just as soloist Inon Barnatan was launching the gloriously lyrical second subject, the ugly jangle of a cellphone broke the near-silence.
If Barnatan was disconcerted by it, he recovered quickly, although it was a jarring moment in an otherwise gripping Minnesota Orchestra performance.
His account of the opening movement was wonderfully imperious, fired by the muscular virtuosity that Brahms’ writing needs. His tensile trilling bristled with emotional intensity, and there was rage and splendor mingled in the thunderous octave outbursts heralding the movement’s conclusion.
Yet the pianist is a poet, too, and caught the undertow of tragedy in the music, which Brahms wrote in response to news of his friend Schumann’s attempted suicide. The beautiful Adagio breathed poetry, too, as Barnatan distilled an aching sense of tenderness from a movement Brahms intended as “a lovely portrait” of Schumann’s wife, Clara. Barnatan’s glowing tonal quality was especially notable, with a delectable balancing of chords and voices between the hands and fingers.
The finale avoided gruffness and bluster, for once plausibly suggesting the eventual triumph of the individual over the force of heavy circumstance.
The audience wanted an encore, and Barnatan supplied it — the second Intermezzo from Brahms’ Op. 118 pieces, played with liquid pianism and probing emotional intelligence.
Conductor Jader Bignamini, making his Minnesota Orchestra debut, accompanied the concerto tautly, never allowing orchestral passages to sag or take a maudlin turn.
He returned after intermission to lead Shostakovich’s Ninth Symphony, whose quirky unpredictability so enraged the Soviet authorities when it premiered in 1945, just after World War II ended.
It’s a tricky work to catch the tone of precisely, and Bignamini’s opening movement hared off at a scorching pace — more Allegro molto than the “Allegro” indicated by Shostakovich — making it difficult to register the detail. The effect was on the breathless side, and seemed to underplay the acid sense of humor in the music, though concertmaster Erin Keefe dug hard to find the playful satire in her violin solo.
The third movement, genuinely marked “Fast,” brought a dazzling response from the wind section at its outset, although the ensemble slithered scrappily in places. Principal bassoon Fei Xie’s rapt playing dominated the slow movement, whose brass fanfares provided an imposing context for Xie’s baleful introspection.
The finale shot off like a rocket, with Bignamini again pushing the players hard. Too hard, perhaps? In Shostakovich, where neurosis is rarely far from the surface, that is debatable — there’s nearly always a strong argument for febrility in interpretations of his music.
But some of the fun and irreverence of the Ninth Symphony seemed missing, for all the surface gleam and technical brilliance of the performance.
Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.