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Sunday, February 1, 2015

Concert Review: The Everlasting Showstoppers

David Robertson conducts the New York Philharmonic.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Pianist Emanuel Ax returned to the New York Philharmonic this week.
Photo by  Lisamarie Mazzucco © 2013 Sony Classical.
The winter tempest that hit New York last Monday night forced the New York Phulharmonic to shrink its planned rehearsal schedule for this week's round of concerts under the baton of David Robertson. That resulted in a change of program and a concert that featured not one, not two, but three show-stopping works.

In his years working with the St. Louis Symphony, Mr. Robertson has drawn acclaim for his sharp leadership in modern music. However, the first half of this concert (seen at Friday's 11am matinée) was much more conventional. Mr. Robertson opened with Vocalise, a Serge Rachmaninoff song presented in a lush transcription for strings and wind. The Philharmonic string section played the vocal lines with warmth and sweet tone, underlining the connection between Rachmaninoff's melodic sense and the church music of Russian Orthodoxy.

The first show-stopper of the afternoon was Chopin's Piano Concerto in F minor with soloist Emanuel Ax returning to play the solo part. Chopin receives a lot of grief for his concertos (they're his only orchestral works) but Mr. Ax and Mr. Robertson gave this work a good account. Mr. Ax was lyrical in his interpretation of the smooth yet sentimental melodic line, and Mr. Robertson provided careful orchestral support. The key to this performance was tone and balance of forces and these two artists displayed that in abundance.

Mr. Robertson took a back seat in the Larghetto, allowing Mr. Ax his freedom the interpret the melodic line. He responded with a smartly played, thoughtful account with a cantabile approach to the solo piano.  Pianist and conductor worked closely together in the final rondo, bringing the work to a glittering close that did not sacrifice substance for flash. Following the audience's ovation, Mr. Ax played a lovely Schumann encore, "Des Abends" from the Fantasiestücke.

The change in the program came after the intermission. Due to the snowstorm last week, there wasn't time to rehearse Stravinsky's Chant du Rossignol, so Mr. Robertson elected to play the 1919 Suite from The Firebird, a more famous work by same composer. It should be noted that the Philharmonc had already played the complete ballet this season under Esa-Pekka Salonen so it was no problem to make this adjustment.

Starting with the slow introduction, Mr. Robertson led his forces through a riveting, although abridged version of this famous score. High points included the contrabassoon playing in the mysterious opening, the slither and skitter of violins and the elegaic wind solos that indicate the fantastic fairy princesses that the Firebird is protecting. Sudden violence erupted with the demonic Dance of King Kaschei, played with energy and hair-raising power. The celebratory Finale showcased the solo horn and sturdy brass of the Philharmonic, bringing the whole to a triumphant and moving close.

The spectacular orchestral violence of the Firebird carried over into the Music from The Miraculous Mandarin, a 20-minute condensation of the Bartók ballet. The ballet, which shocked audiences in 1926 with its portrait of three thugs, a prostitute and a client who after being beaten, robbed, and stabbed refuses to remain dead is a powerful affair.

Here, the Philharmonic low brass were on display, growling out the creepy, slightly Asiatic pentatonic theme for the title character. Anthony McGill's agile clarinet took the role of the prostitute, warbling and cooing from the window and then fleeing in terror before the stare of the Mandarin. Mr. Robertson spurred his players into a frenetic waltz which climaxed in an extraordinary dissonance, shaking the 50-year-old concert hall. The finale, tacked on by the composer in preparing this abridgment, seemed something of an anticlimax.

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