Bamberg Symphony Orchestra/Nott Pierre-Laurent Aimard in New York – 1

Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune
Piano Concerto No.3
Symphonies of Wind Instruments [1947 version]
Piano Concerto No.1

Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano)

Bamberg Symphony Orchestra
Jonathan Nott

Reviewed by: Andrew Farach-Colton

Reviewed: 20 May, 2009
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York City

Jonathan Nott. Photograph: Priska Ketterer/TudorThis was the first of two concerts by the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra centered upon Bartók’s three piano concertos, with seminal works by Debussy and Stravinsky as frames. And what lovelier way to begin than with Prélude à l’après-midi d’n faune – its opening flute solo described by Pierre Boulez as the first breath of modern music? Ulrich Biersack molded the famous solo into a single, long and undulating line, setting the tone for what turned out to be a wonderfully supple and languorous (though never sluggish) interpretation. A few transitional passages were slightly smudged by imprecise ensemble, but otherwise the orchestra played extremely well for its British-born music director, Jonathan Nott. Indeed, the surging crescendos and sighing diminuendos were accomplished with striking unanimity.

It was somewhat jarring to move from the pliant, perfumed atmosphere of the Debussy, to Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s granitic performance of Bartók’s Third Piano Concerto. Yes, Aimard’s playing is a model of textual clarity and intelligent, unaffected phraseology, but here one felt a distinct lack of affection, charm and playfulness. There was little mystery in the Adagio religioso, for example; even the chirping and cascading figures in that movement’s fantastical, scherzo-like interlude came across as a display of disconnected, abstract shapes.

After the interval, Nott and 22 members of the Bamberg’s wind and brass players highlighted the stark sonic contrasts of Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments. The result was a kind of mosaic made up of disparate, seemingly unreconcilable shards, yet somehow Nott had them fit together to form a coherent, expressive image.

Aimard returned to conclude the concert with Bartók’s First Piano Concerto, its percussive solo part suiting his musical personality far better than the more lyrical Third. The pianist pounded away at the opening bass notes, creating a fearsome sound. Yet there was a strange lack of savagery both here and in the finale; it was an electric performance, to be sure, yet the excitement was generated primarily from the stunning rhythmic accuracy of Aimard’s playing. In the slow movement, Aimard’s lucidity had the effect of casting a bright light on what is the first of Bartók’s great ‘night music’ scenes, so there were few if any shadows or dark corners.

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