Piano Concerto No.5 in E flat, Op.73 (Emperor)
Manfred – Symphony in B minor after Byron, Op.58
Emanuel Ax (piano)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Reviewed by: Elizabeth Barnette
Reviewed: 8 December, 2011
Venue: Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City
With the younger generation of conductors, it often seems that a flamboyant podium manner and emphasis on visceral excitement carry the day, regardless of the musical merits of a performance. At first glance Vladimir Jurowski appears to be one of these theatrical maestros, with his long, flowing 19th-century artist’s mane of black hair. But when he lifts the baton he elicits the music with a minimum of gestures, drawing it out instead of beating it into the orchestra, directing and shaping flow. His gestures may look slightly posed at times, but they offer him perfect control of the ensemble to give an inner life to phrases and achieving structural coherence, creating all the color, inflection and excitement one could wish for.
This was especially noteworthy in Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony, after Byron’s dramatic poem, and written between the Fourth and Fifth symphonies. A programmatic work almost an hour long, it describes Manfred’s various experiences in the Alps. Nevertheless, the language is unmistakably Russian. The London Philharmonic brought to it an appropriately dark, rich and expansive sound. The first movement was perfectly paced, from the opening brooding wind recitative to the powerful ending, bringing out both drama and lyricism along the way. The appearance of the Alpine fairy in the scherzo showed off the LPO’s lightness of string sound, as well as the virtuosity of the woodwind. Oboist Ian Hardwick beautifully opened the Andante, “a picture of the humble, simple free life of the mountain folk”, which also featured noteworthy horn solos by Alec Frank-Gemmel, while the finale gave the brass and percussion sections occasion to shine. One might have wished for a little more abandon in the “infernal orgy”, but nevertheless this was a splendidly conceived, deeply felt and extremely well-played performance by an orchestra of the highest technical and artistic standards. The encore was ‘Pas de deux’ from Act Two of The Nutcracker.
The concert opened with Emanuel Ax performing Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’ Piano Concerto, usually a real showcase for the pianist. However, here the ear was drawn as much or possibly more to the orchestra as to the solo part. In the opening tutti Jurowski immediately established Beethoven’s ‘middle’-period sound and style, and when the piano re-entered it was integrated into the orchestral fabric rather than taking a position in the foreground. Ax is a serious musician, and not a flashy player, but when he did assert himself, in louder passages, his sound turned harsh and unpleasant. The second movement was taken at a rather flowing tempo, more of a semplice character than a meditation, with a seamless transition to the finale. No great explosion of sound here, but the beginning of a pleasant, comfortable romp through the various changes of key. As an extra Ax offered a rhythmically sloppy Schubert A flat Impromptu (from D935), substituting triplets for dotted figures.