Pappano strikes sparks with Philharmonic in colorful program

Fri Feb 09, 2018 at 12:59 pm
Leif Ove Andsnes performed Britten's Piano Concerto with Antonio Pappano conducting the New York Philharmonic Thursday night at David Geffen Hall. Photo: Chris Lee

Leif Ove Andsnes performed Britten’s Piano Concerto with Antonio Pappano conducting the New York Philharmonic Thursday night at David Geffen Hall. Photo: Chris Lee

Rich programs don’t have to be endless. The one presented by the New York Philharmonic on Thursday clocked in around an hour and forty-five minutes with intermission, but it proved to be one of the orchestra’s best performances of the season. Guest conductor Antonio Pappano, music director of London’s Royal Opera House, had the musicians sounding at their very best in a colorful program that spanned late romanticism and early modernism.

Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis showcased the Philharmonic’s strings. Though Frank Huang was off this week (Sheryl Staples took the first chair), the Philharmonic strings have been sounding more alive, more powerful, and more colorful than ever since Huang took over as concertmaster. Pappano coaxed out of them an extraordinary, full richness, with dark heat in the middle voices, charting long, arching phrases. The intimate playing of the chamber ensemble at the work’s core was tight and responsive, beautifully complemented by each entrance of the full orchestra, coming in like a warm breeze.

The Philharmonic was joined by star pianist Leif Ove Andsnes for Britten’s Piano Concerto, in its 1945 version. It’s often been observed that the solo part in this concerto is less prominent than most entries in the genre, and that it’s really the orchestra that drives the piece. That’s a fair assessment, but Andsnes’s virtuosity was still clear in this performance. The piece begins in medias res, with a bright, galloping energy right from its opening bars. Andsnes dove in with supreme confidence, showing sharp articulation in the rushing figures of the piano part, occasionally testing the ensemble, but giving an invigorating reading.

The second movement is a steamy, sultry Waltz, but in this rendition there was a pert playfulness to it, as well. A sense of whimsy came through in the variations of the Impromptu, finding stretches of impishness and closing with glittering arpeggios. The closing March was pure pounding excitement, as Andsnes dazzled in the frantic piano part. The concerto finishes with a series of false endings right out of the Beethoven playbook, and Pappano sold each with more conviction than the last.

The program’s second half was the earliest piece on the program, Saint-Saëns’ Symphony No. 3. This symphony is notable for its use of a pipe organ, and David Geffen Hall, of course, has none, its original having been removed during the hall’s first renovation in 1976. For these performances, the Philharmonic uses an electronic organ with two massive speakers on the wings of the stage, achieving a much more powerful and convincing sound than is usually achieved with similar stopgaps.

The strings brought a searing, anxious energy to the pattering figure that runs through the Allegro moderato section of the first of the symphony’s two movements. There was a strong focus throughout this first movement, sometimes sharp, but often softer, as in the flowing reverie of the Poco adagio, whose central tender sentiment contrasted against a background of soft warmth.

Pappano attacked the opening of the second movement with fervor, getting a firm, rough sound out of the orchestra. His precise sense of structure kept the listener constantly riveted: the Maestoso section had a clear purpose as a major milestone in the progression of the piece, overwhelming the listener with blasts of organ and percussion, and seeming to take flight as the majestic theme soared over its harp-like four-hand piano accompaniment.

The program will be repeated 2 p.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday at David Geffen Hall.

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