Nyx [New York premiere]
Le poème de l’extase, Op.54
Piano Concerto No.3 in D minor, Op.30
Garrick Ohlsson (piano)
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Lewis M. Smoley
Reviewed: 5 November, 2011
Venue: Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City
Nyx by Esa-Pekka Salonen was completed at the beginning of this year and premiered in Paris in February. Salonen uses a large orchestra with a solo clarinet and four horns functioning in concertante roles and suggests that he sought to create complex polyphony for a large ensemble without forsaking clarity of line. Figurative material and long-lined thematic phrases emerge through a welter of counterpoint throughout this fascinating seventeen-minute work, one with brilliant instrumental colors. Vibraphone tones embellish lyrical strings to give a mystical quality; the solo clarinet’s fluttering figuration evokes the elusive spirit of the chimerical Greek goddess after whom the work is named; and confluences of high and low registers in strings and winds create a mysterious unearthly aura. Billowing cross-currents of string arpeggios carry us into a realm beyond, where the clarinet meditates like a Greek Chorus and the horn ensemble roots ethereal passages in firmer ground and adds impulse to the work’s forward progress. Long segments of sustained tension give way to moments of calming stillness. Suddenly, and without reaching any definable goal, a flickering figure on the flute scurries off as if to suggest that there is no end to the journey, only to the piece itself. The ASO played with commitment and enthusiasm, clarinetist Laura Ardan and the four horn-players executing their parts quite well, despite occasionally being engulfed in elaborate polyphony. Spano brought out the work’s dramatic character.
It seemed fitting to follow Nyx with Scriabin’s Le poème de l’extase (sometimes referred to as Symphony No.4), which also seems to take us through a ‘life journey’ and works its way to its ultimate goal, a blazing eruption of C major, and organized around various motifs of shifting chromaticism that undermine tonal stability. Scriabin’s musical language is highly sensuous, which contrasts with gushing waves of sound. From the outset this performance seemed too studied, uncomfortable with the work’s exceedingly romantic nature and devoid of the mystical quality that makes Scriabin’s music so entrancing. Woodwind passages that contain important motivic material were underexposed; brass fanfares that symbolize life’s adventure were unconvincing; quiet passages that divert momentarily from the onward motion seemed dry and indifferent. Spano tried to urge his players on with fervor, but the final chord should have projected a greater sense of enlightening fulfillment. Instead, it merely sounded loud.
The highlight of the evening was Ohlsson’s Rachmaninov. His enormous hands are said to reach the interval of a twelfth, for which Rachmaninov was also noted. Ohlsson’s playing is both sensitive and impassioned without missing or smudging a note; such a combination of delicacy, strength and vitality is rare. His playing in the first movement was gripping, particularly impressive in his negotiation of octave runs, yet when the first theme returned toward the end, it was expressed like a gentle whisper. The orchestra began the Adagio as if in a dream, a perfect setting for Ohlsson to play the softer passages with tenderness. In the finale Ohlsson surpassed himself through elfin dexterity and wistful grace. As an encore Ohlsson gave a moving rendition of Debussy’s ‘Clair de Lune’ from Suite bergamasque, its wistful strains played broadly and with remarkable lightness, such that the sounds seemed to float on air. No-one wanted to break the stillness … eventually the audience came back down to earth and gave Ohlsson another stupendous ovation.