Thibaudet shines in Philharmonic’s mixed night of Ravel

Thu Jan 18, 2018 at 12:27 pm
Jean-Yves Thibaudet performed Ravel's Concerto for the Left Hand with the New York Philharmonic Wednesday night.

Jean-Yves Thibaudet performed Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand with the New York Philharmonic Wednesday night.

It had, in some ways, the feeling of a storybook debut: Youthful conductor steps in for a veteran maestro, the orchestra rises to the occasion, ovation ensues.

Except it was hardly a debut for Joshua Weilerstein, who led the New York Philharmonic in a nearly-all-Ravel program Wednesday night, substituting for Charles Dutoit (whose engagement had been canceled following accusations of sexual misconduct). After three seasons as the orchestra’s assistant conductor, Weilerstein was no stranger to the Philharmonic podium.

And while storybooks are big on the splendid fortissimos and excited applause heard Wednesday night, they don’t generally include the muddy sound and ragged ensemble the orchestra tended to slip into whenever the dynamic level dipped below mezzo forte.

Le Tombeau de Couperin, Ravel’s modest tribute to the Baroque era, suffered particularly from the players’ inattention. The Prélude managed some swish and sweep, but its delicate swirls were smears instead. The dancing lift and line of the skipping Forlane and the suave Menuet failed to materialize, despite Weilerstein’s exhortations. However, the faster sections of the closing Toccata sounded crisp and energetic, a last-minute rescue for an otherwise dull performance.

But the cavalry arrived when pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet came onstage for Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand. The orchestra sounded on its mettle as Weilerstein expertly built the long, ominous crescendo to the pianist’s craggy first entrance. Thereafter, Thibaudet’s left thumb proved an eloquent singer in the yearning or dreamy passages and a trumpet when the sonorous octaves and chords built up, prompting equally vivid responses from Weilerstein and his band.

Showing the one-handed pianist no mercy, Ravel unleashed the full power of his large orchestra in the piece’s latter stages. At the end, the audience seemed as delighted by the orchestral display as by the pianist’s brilliance, and summoned pianist and conductor back to the stage three times for bows.

Joshua Weilerstein. Photo: Jesse Weiner

Joshua Weilerstein. Photo: Jesse Weiner

This high point was followed after intermission by a trifling item, a Sarabande et Danse that Ravel arranged from two piano pieces by Debussy in 1922 as a favor to a publisher. Last performed by the Philharmonic in 1938, the two pieces were included here (according to James M. Keller’s program notes) for historical reasons, Ravel having conducted them on his triumphant 1928 tour of the U.S., which this concert commemorated.

The pieces showed Ravel-the-great-orchestrator at his most precious; Weilerstein, while attending to the music’s exotic squeaks and tinkles, forgot to make it dance.

Dance rhythm, of course, was the key to Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales, and raucous, brassy moments like the opening waltz had plenty of bounce on Wednesday. But precise rhythm and ensemble are just as important, if not more so, to the soft, hazy passages that predominate in this piece, and there the playing was dully bar-by-bar at best, and often lax and out of focus.

A similar problem affected the opening minutes of Boléro, that strange and wonderful proto-minimalist object—not in the rhythm section, which consisted of page after page of precise pizzicato and of course Christopher S. Lamb’s inexorable snare drum, but in the careless solos and accompaniments that went in and out of sync. As a result, the piece’s ineffably cool, hypnotic character took a while to establish.

As the long crescendo mounted, however, the occasional extra swoop and flourish became a welcome variation on the robotic theme’s march to the spectacular finish. Weilerstein might have saved one last bit of fortissimo for the shocking modulation at the end, but that’s a trifling complaint about an exciting performance–one for the books, you might say.

The program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Thursday and 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday. nyphil.org; 212-875-5656.


2 Responses to “Thibaudet shines in Philharmonic’s mixed night of Ravel”

  1. Posted Jan 19, 2018 at 4:44 am by Daniel Stone

    It is hard to imagine we were at the same concert, unless you were sitting in a part of the hall that completely interfered with the sounds you were getting. The playing was precise and the ensemble breathed together beautifully. The pianissimo sections especially were light and delicate.
    Get better seats next time if you’re going to be reviewing people!

  2. Posted Jan 21, 2018 at 12:12 am by Robert Francks

    I have to say that, unless there was a considerable change in the execution of the Mostly Ravel program of the NY Philharmonic between Wednesday and Thursday, when I attended, I have to concur for the most part with Mr. Wright.

    I’m glad Mr. Stone had so enthralling an experience of the program, but Mr. Wright’s points about what I, too, found disappointing matches what I expressed to several friends after the concert. I understand completely why Mr. Dutoit felt he had to withdraw from this engagement. However, what he has always brought to his conducting of Ravel is a sense of rhythm and a nuance of phrasing that Mr. Weilerstein, as yet, has not mastered. The orchestra was, of course, magnificent, but too much of the subtleties of Ravel’s writing went by the wayside or were powered through. And Jean-Yves Thibaudet was frequently drowned out by the orchestra, a situation not entirely of Ravel’s devising.

    And, by the way, Mr. Stone, I had a wonderful seat in the Third Ring just a bit back from the stage. No acoustical problems there. And no unnecessary snark about where the reviewer sat.

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