Monday, 5 January 2009

Ax/NYPO/Maazel, 3 January 2009

Avery Fisher Hall, New York

Bach - Brandenburg Concerto no.2 in F major, BWV 1047
Szymanowski – Symphony no.4, for piano and orchestra, op.60
Strauss – Burleske in D minor, for piano and orchestra
Mussorgsky, orch. Ravel – Pictures at an exhibition

Emanuel Ax (piano)
Philip Smith (trumpet)
Sheryl Staples (violin)
Robert Langevin (flute)
Liang Wang (oboe)
New York Philharmonic Orchestra
Lorin Maazel (conductor)

This was a curious programme. Part way through Pictures at an exhibition, I wondered whether a connecting theme might have been unusual concerto forms – at least in Classical terms – although I doubt that this could have been the intention. I had better explain why Mussorgsky-Ravel would fall into such a category, so shall start with that, the final work, which had the second half to itself. Pictures at an exhibition is not, of course, a concerto for orchestra but in Lorin Maazel’s performance, it rather sounded like one. Ravel’s transcription has become very much an orchestral showpiece and seeking for a Mussorgskian heart beating beneath the Ravelian glitter may be somewhat to miss the point, but I do think it worth making the attempt. This performance was verily sped through, all sections of the New York Philharmonic on superb technical form, yet I could not help thinking that something was missing. The tone was set with an opening Promenade as brisk as – probably brisker than – any I have ever heard, and almost every movement was considerably quicker than usual. The cart in ‘Bydlo’ is drawn by oxen; here it sounded motorised, almost turbo-charged. By contrast, the ‘Great Gate of Kiev’ seemed to last for an eternity, excessively drawn out even without the irritating inserted pregnant pauses. Much of the audience clearly enjoyed such a virtuosic account – I hesitate to say ‘interpretation’ – but I found this the least interesting of the four performances.

Let us return to the beginning. Bach’s second Brandenburg Concerto is one of the greatest of all concerti grossi and I liked this performance very much. It may not have plumbed the Bachian depths; Maazel is no Klemperer or Richter. But we benefited from elegant style and a praiseworthy refusal to genuflect before the false god of ‘authenticity’. Each of the soloists proved eminently musical and exhibited great beauty of tone. Balances both between concertino and ripieno and between the soloists themselves – often tricky in this work – were perfect. Dynamic contrasts were sometimes terraced, though never aggressively of the ‘sewing-machine’ Baroque school, and sometimes shaded, especially in the beautiful slow movement. It flowed in the best sense, ‘flowing’ here being what it says rather than a euphemism for dogmatically fast. The contrast with the opening of the third movement, characterised by a perky trumpet entry, was musical rather than a perverse shock-tactic. Maazel here adopted a tempo that seemed just right: lively but not frenetic, and with a nice but not vulgar rallentando at the close.

Szymanowski’s Fourth Symphony is not a concerto, but has a concertante piano part, here played by Emanuel Ax. The music and the style are of course Szymanowski’s own, but for the uninitiated, one hears something between Bartók and Zemlinsky. It is a marvellous work and it was gratifying to hear it performed by musicians who are not especially known as advocates of the composer. Maazel drove some of the music, especially in the outer movements, a little hard but the great washes of orchestral sound came over well, with excellent solo work from the leader and timpanist, amongst others. Ax could be rather heavy-handed, playing his part as if this really were a Romantic concerto. However, he was most impressive as the hot-house accompanist of the slow movement’s night-chamber-music. King Roger, the composer’s operatic masterpiece, was palpably close.

Maazel and Ax both seemed better acquainted with Strauss’s Burleske, Ax now playing without a score. It is an endearing if un-Straussian work, generally more redolent of Brahms, sometimes Schumann, and occasionally Liszt; there is perhaps but one progression that puts me in mind of the later Strauss (Rosenkavalier, certainly not Elektra). Not even so good a performance as this was could convince me that Strauss always knows where he is going harmonically, but this movement is in conventional concerto-style and sounded like it. Both pianist and conductor proved more yielding than they had been in the Szymanowski, although some of the brass interventions were unnecessarily brash. Ax’s virtuosic style was more appropriate here. I only wish that the programme had amounted to more than the sum of its parts.