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Thursday, October 27, 2016

Concert Review: The Rest of This Concert Will Be in Polish

The Warsaw National Philharmonic Orchestra returns to New York.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Dress casual: Jacek Kaspszyk (center) rehearses the Warsaw National Philharmonic Orchestra
at Alice Tully Hal. Photo courtesy the Warsaw National Philharmonic Orchestra.
It is a rare treat to hear the Orkiestra Filharmonii Narodowej (Warsaw National Philharmonic Orchestra) on a concert stage in New York. On Monday night, this Polish orchestra played at Alice Tully Hall under the baton of current music director Jacek Kaspszyk. Although not well known in this country, the WNPO has a long history, having been founded in their home city in 1901. This was the ensemble's first visit to the city since 2008, offering a program featuring works by Johannes Brahms, Frederic Chopin and Mieczysław Weinberg.

The concert opened with Brahms' Tragic Overture giving the listener a chance to hear the different qualities of this ensemble. In the bright acoustic of Tully, the strings showed up well, with a dark and rich tone. The horns excelled, with the pure and clear sound that one associates with German and Austrian orchestras, always expressive and played with meaning and intent. The climax of this overture was stirring, led by Mr. Kaspzyk with the sense of drama that always helps the best interpretations of Brahms.

The Chopin First Piano Concerto that followed was much more pedestrian, a pity since it marked the New York concerto performance debut of pianist Seong-Jin Cho. A year ago this artist won the 2015 International Chopin Competition and this performance showed why. The entry of the piano was perfectly timed, following the big orchestral statement that starts the work. If there was a negative it was that this performance was a bit too perfect in its execution, with Mr. Cho and Mr. Kaspzyk choosing cautious, flawless execution over dramatic fire.

However, the three movements of the concerto were really setup for the encore that followed: a performance of the A Flat Polonaise by the same composer. Mr. Cho seemed much more at home here, playing the rhythms with a crisp attack and modulating the work's key and rhythm changes through skilled use of his left hand. The drama and intensity of this short piano work were present and accounted for, along with a fluid sense of rhythm. Although this was a young artist's interpretation, the results were fascinating and leaves one wanto to hear more.

At the top of the article, it was mentioned that the WNPO played the music of Mieczysław Weinberg. A word of introduction is needed. Weinberg was a Polish Jew who fled the Nazis at the start of the Second World War. He wound up in Russia, where his career as a composer flourished, under the tutelage of his friend and mentor Dmitri Shostakovich, who dedicated his Tenth String Quartet to Weinberg. He wrote 22 symphonies, a number of operas and a vast array of chamber works and film scores, the best-known being his score for a unique Russian version of Winnie the Pooh. Outside Russia though, his work is only heard occasionally.

The Fourth Symphony, performed here, is his best known major orchestral work. Its musical idiom could best be described as Mahler meets Shostakovich, an interesting clash of rock-ribbed Russian rhythm and the last glowing spark of Western romanticism. In the first movement, Mr. Kaspzyk revealed the work's excellent quality, with a grinding, repetitive rhythm in the strings that moved with relentless, prowling power. This toccata theme contrasted with sweet and nostalgic melodies in the other parts of the orchestra but ultimately held sway, driven forward by the low strings and the timpani played with hard wooden sticks.

The second movement was just as gripping, with a solo clarinet commenting over a sparse arrangement of strings. This came across as a kind of elegy for those slaughtered in World War II, a long and mournful look back at the composer's homeland. The dance movement that followed was slow and stately, making use of Jewish folk themes in its three sections. It ended with a cautiously optimistic fast movement, featuring the clear and lovely horns of this orchestra and a return of the taut, propulsive rhythms from the opening bars. An excellent performance, and an argument that Weinberg's music should be programmed more often. As if to underline that point, Mr. Kaspzyk returned to lead an encore: the composer's exuberant Mazurka from his collection of Polish Melodies

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