Warsaw Philharmonic presents a Chopin winner and a Weinberg rarity
In its first New York appearance in nearly eight years, the venerable Warsaw Philharmonic arrived at Alice Tully Hall with two repertory standards—and an intriguing symphony that most in the audience had likely never heard.
Founded in 1901, the orchestra has a distinguished history, with conductors such as Witold Rowicki, Kazimierz Kord, and Anton Wit. Since 2013, the reins have been entrusted to Jacek Kaspszyk.
There are few openers as hoary as Brahms’s Tragic Overture, but it served as a fine litmus test of the group’s sound and technique. What was evident from the beginning of this reverent reading was the finesse of the orchestra’s strings, and the ability of the group to shrink its utterances to a whisper.
As Seong-Jin Cho strode out to the piano for Chopin’s First Piano Concerto, to a cheering audience, it was clear that the Seoul-born artist already has a following, and it turns out that devotion is justified. At 22, Cho has a recent connection to Warsaw: just a year ago, in October 2015, he won first prize in the Chopin International Piano Competition. (In January he also signed a contract with Deutsche Grammophon.)
After the stately orchestral introduction, Cho’s entrance was like a firm handshake—a calling card from an initial meeting one remembers. Throughout his expressive reading, both he and the orchestra refrained from pummeling listeners into submission, as less successful accounts can do. Using a moderate-sized ensemble, Kaspszyk found appealing balance, with phrasing that could be a model for making entrances and exits.
Small moments had a huge impact throughout this performance. At the end of the second movement, Cho found exactly the right level on which to land the final, ethereal note. And in the last movement, his passages with the violins seemed fused into a single line, neither claiming dominance, only a mutual desire to recreate the composer’s ticklish sensations.
The ovations were immediate and long, and Cho offered more Chopin, with the evergreen Polonaise, Op. 53—again delivered not to smite, but to seduce.
Miecszyslaw Weinberg is finally getting his due—or some of it. Born in Warsaw in 1919, the composer greatly admired Shostakovich, who not only taught Weinberg but—more crucially—saved his life in 1941, when the Russian government had him arrested and briefly imprisoned. Though the Weinberg revival began in the 1960s, Kaspszyk can be credited with doing his part: in 2013, one of his first acts as the Philharmonic’s new music director was to record Weinberg’s Symphony No. 4, which he and the musicians turned into this evening’s exuberant conclusion.
An agitated unison line marks the first movement, and as the brass and winds chime in with complementary dissonance, the Shostakovich debt becomes clear. The second movement, originally titled “Intermezzo,” evokes Stravinsky’s Petrushka in its pair of muted trumpets, piccolo and flute, ghostly pizzicatos in the double basses, and moments for solo violin. Actually many in the ensemble have tiny solos—”fragments” is probably a better word, considering how quickly the motifs are snuffed out.
After a pensive horn solo that opens the third movement, the cellos unveil a gorgeous melodic line, later passed around to other sections—a strange, gliding dance, with perhaps (as the program notes suggested) roots in the composer’s reminiscence of his parents and sister, all killed in the concentration camp at Trawniki. Whatever the case, the orchestra gave the night’s most refined playing, all the way to the final pianissimo measures, an arresting mix of bass drum, contrabassoon, and solo violin, closing with a single flute note.
In the finale, Weinberg’s biting acidity and buzzing rhythms resemble those in the Allegretto of his mentor’s Tenth Symphony. But Shostakovich was inspired by Stalin, whereas Weinberg used a Russian folk melody called “The Partridge” for his compelling conclusion, filled with zigzagging rhythms and a whiff of a mazurka. About halfway through, the tempo broadens to anthemic grandeur—perhaps a nostalgic snapshot—before the tumult rushes in for the work’s crashing final bars.
With most of the sold-out audience on its feet, Kaspszyk returned for a swaggering encore: the insouciant, extravagantly orchestrated Mazurka from Weinberg’s Polish Melodies, which made the most of the orchestra’s gritty power.