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Friday, December 9, 2011

Concert Review: When Manny met Manfred

The London Philharmonic Orchestra at Carnegie Hall
A man and a piano: the phenomenal Emanuel Ax. Photo © Sony Classical.
On Thursday night, the London Philharmonic Orchestra offered its second of two concerts at Carnegie Hall this week under music director Vladimir Jurowski.. The program featured Beethoven's Emperor Concerto with soloist Emmanuel Ax, paired with the Manfred Symphony, a little-known example of Tchaikovsky at his most bombastic. Each piece displayed the  orchestra's characteristic sound, a rich, thick texture of brass and strings, burnished to a warm, crowd-pleasing glow.

Emanuel Ax has over 100 guest appearances with the New York Philharmonic. But the genial pianist is a welcome visitor to any orchestra, taking a scholarly, yet light-hearted approach to Beethoven's great concerto. In the Emperor, his playing was straightforward and lyrical, grounded in solid musicianship. He generated a lovely, singing tone in the first movement, bringing out the humanism in some of Beethoven's best writing.

The slow central section was languid, almost dreamily played. Mysterious passages came to light thanks to the pianist bringing out the fine details of this movement. Under Mr. Jurowski's baton, the LPO gathered itself for the leap into the finale. Again, Mr. Ax proved his mastery of every technical challenge thrown at the soloist. This was a technical, yet thrilling performance of Beethoven's mightiest concerto, a work that looks forward to the romantic excesses to come in the 19th century.

Speaking of which: Tchaikovsky's Manfred Symphony is never counted among the composer's six examples of that genre, and remains the least performed of the composer's major works for orchestra. The work is from his middle period, an effort to combine the profound inner turmoil of the later symphonies with the aural assault of the 1812 Overture. There were no cannons in this performance, but with a gigantic brass section, three percussion players and an organ, Mr. Jurowski had plenty of artillery at his disposal.

Mr. Jurowski did his best to make a case for Manfred. The argument was helped by brilliant playing from the LPO woodwinds and brass, who led the aural assault with bright tones and skilled playing. The fiery conductor did his best to balance the strings with the brass, creating a coherent aural picture of Byron's romantic hero. The first movement, a tone poem in itself, pulled the listener into the protagonist's emotional tumult. The second was a scherzo on a huge scale, depicting idyllic peasants gamboling in an Alpine village. The third continued this dreamy idyll with Berlioz-like writing centered around an idée fixe. 

Working hard on the podium, Mr. Jurowski pulled out all the stops for the turbulent finale, a lengthy depcition of soe apocalyptic event leading up to Manfred's death. This is Tchaikovsky at his most Wagnerian, with descending motifs that recall certain pages of Rheingold. In the end, the organ led the strings in an elegy for the deceased Manfred. Perhaps he met his end from sitting too close to the trombones.

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