Bartok heats up Philharmonic program in unsettled week

Thu Jan 29, 2015 at 12:04 pm
David Robertson conducted the New York Philharmonic Thursday night.

David Robertson conducted the New York Philharmonic Wednesday night.

One of the few casualties of this week’s blizzard of historic proportions that failed to materialize in New York City was Stravinsky.

The New York Philharmonic’s concert program that opened Wednesday night originally included the composer’s intriguing and beautiful Chant du rossignal (Song of the nightingale). But the threat of bad weather ate into the available rehearsal time, so visiting conductor David Robertson replaced rossignol with The Firebird Suite, trading the exotic for the familiar, but with no loss in compositional quality.

At least that was the plan. The program as a whole was a collage of pieces from the romantic and late romantic era that had nothing at all to do with each other, except for a broad association with Eastern Europe and Russia. Although both wrote notable music for the piano, Rachmaninoff, represented by his Vocalise, Op. 34, No. 14, and Chopin—Emanuel Ax was on hand to play the Piano Concerto in F minor, Op. 21—don’t have much to do with each other musically.

Stravinsky and Bartók, whose music concluded the concert, are much closer, and the latter’s Suite from The Miraculous Mandarin, which joined Firebird on the second half, owes a lot of its intensity and a bit of its material to The Rite of Spring. But there was no overriding theme or argument, just a concert of good music.

The onus, therefore, was on the quality of the music making. Things were off to a promising start when the orchestra dispatched the Vocalise with a welcome lack of sentimentality.

Chopin’s Piano Concerto is a more substantial and difficult piece. Ax was wonderful. His technique and his ideas about the music worked hand in hand. The pianist used rubato judiciously, looking for windows when the orchestral accompaniment was spare to stretch the pulse within measures, while guarding his solo passages from a clichéd romanticism.

Instead, the soloist used passages like those at the end of the first movement, and through the Larghetto to flash considerable wit and charm. Chopin’s technical challenges mask an introverted expression, even in a public display like this concerto, and Ax played these as compelling private moments. Although he reacted with great modesty to the applause, Ax did sit at the piano for an encore, a free and singing take on “Des Abends,” from Schumann’s Op. 12 Fantasiestücke.

Robertson followed the pianist assiduously, but there were times, mainly at the start of the third movement, where communication from Ax to Robertson to orchestra had the ensemble consistently behind the mark. Balances were also bland, with no real color or clarity embellishing the ordinariness of Chopin’s orchestration.

The Firebird Suite (1919 version) was a concession to familiarity and experience, a piece they had played so often that it would need minimal preparation. It clearly needed a bit more. Robertson has a tendency to use tempos that are slightly slower than normal to reveal proportional relationships in musical forms.

The orchestra followed him, but rather than clarity and tension, the audience got torpor. This was, at best, a routine performance, sluggish all the way through, the only memorable and enjoyable moment was Judith LeClair’s plangent bassoon solo in the “Berceuse.” This is a piece that should be expected to improve through each concert in this series.

What a difference with Bartók. The Miraculous Mandarin is one of the composer’s strangest, most violent scores, and the orchestra immediately exploded into the music with energy and a sense of brittle frenzy. In Avery Fisher, the sound of their playing had a shallow, upfront quality, but there is so much exciting confrontation in the piece that it worked well. The theme, which rises and falls through unexpected intervals, was played with weight and force.

The orchestra played brilliantly throughout, with a feeling of savagery that was a shocking and welcome contrast with the Stravinsky performance. Bartók wrote showcase music in the piece for the clarinets and trombones, and each section was superb. This was the kind of invigorating, expressive playing that should be the routine for all classical concerts.

This program continues through Saturday, January 31.

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