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Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Concert Review: Truth in Advertising

The New York Philharmonic does Dohnányi/Dvořák.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
A framegrab of Christoph von Dohnányi.
The venerable conductor Christoph Von Dohnányi finally arrived at the New York Philharmonic last week, just in time to conduct the second and final series of concerts in this year’s festival devoted to the combination of a single composer and conductor. (Yes, this year it was marketed as "Dohnányi/ Dvořák" but Mr. Dohnányi missed the first week as he was recovering from flu.) The aristocractic German conductor, whose long podium career stems from an ancestry that includes famed composer Erno von Dohnányi, looked hale and healthy as he stepped onto the podium at Avery Fisher Hall to conduct Friday night's concert.

Joining Mr. Dohnányi was pianist Martin Helmchen, making his New York Philharmonic debut in these concerts. Their joint task: performing the the unrevised (and therefore more technically difficult) Dvořák Piano Concerto, a work that stems from 1876, the year that this obscure butcher's son and professional viola player was recognized as the most important voice writing in 19th century Czech music.

This is the least known and least performed of Dvořák's three concertos, and shares with the earlier works in his catalogue an almost-Wagnerian tendency to expound at length upon potentially uninteresting musical subjects. However, the vivid and imaginative orchestration (featuring repeated congruences between solo winds and the piano part) made for interesting listening, and the performance as a whole was an argument, not for the concerto's permanent elevation to the canon of regularly performed concert works, but that it should be dusted off and played once in a while.

From the instrument’s first entry (well after the initial orchestral statement) Mr. Helmchen showed why this concerto has languished in the back ranks of Dvořák works. It's  difficult, with a pell-mell series of down-the-stairs phrases that recalled the writing of Franz Liszt. However, the big-shouldered opening movement was giving a burly, brawling presence, with Mr. Dohnányi collaborating closely with his soloist and the principal players to ornament the melodic line. With the orchestra re-seated according to the conductor's blueprint, the double basses provided burly support to the soloist.

The central slow movement (marked Andante sostenuto but taken at a very slow walk here) is curious, with shimmering, almost Wagnerian divided strings, high soft sighs in the oboe. This melodic pattern should be familiar to even the most novice of listeners as it matches the one that Dvořák used in the Largo of the New World Symphony. The work ended in an expansive Rondo, an endurance test for listener and soloist alike. Mr. Helmchen played the tricky solo part with flair as Mr. Dohnányi supplied lively accompaniment.

Mr. Dohnányi took a unique approach to the Symphony No. 9. His first movement was marked by sudden accelerando and ritardando passages, where the orchestra would speed up or slow at the whim of his baton or a crooked finger. The famous slow movement (marked Largo, not lento) was actually faster than the norm, with Mr. Dohnányi capturing the folk-music flavor that inspired Dvořák to write the piece on a trip to Spillville, Iowa.  The Engish horn solo was eloquent, met with equally passionate horns and strings. The sublime moment came in the chamber-like re-iteration of the main theme, played with grace by the principal strings--a little ensemble that beat at the heart of this much greater work.

Mr. Dohnányi put fire and passion into the last two movements, exhorting the orchestra to an impressive fury in the Scherzo but supplying an old-fashioned grace to the slower dance in the central trio. Powered by surging horns and trombones, the last movement referenced the three that had gone before, with the surging, swinging chords that start the largo coming back like giants stalking across the Iowan corn-fields. The unexpectedly gentle coda recaptured that chamber music quality, with the very last bars coming back with stunning force.

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