Symphony No.1 (Berliner Sinfonie)
Piano Concerto in C, Op.39
Hila Plitmann (soprano)
Marc-André Hamelin (piano)
Men of the Westminster Symphonic Choir
New Jersey Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Elizabeth Barnette
Reviewed: 9 May, 2012
Venue: Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City
Offering a chance for regional North American Orchestras to appear at the prestigious venue, Carnegie Hall’s second annual “Spring for Music” Festival presents six concerts within a week, at very affordable ticket prices. While the orchestras naturally have to meet a standard of excellence, they are mainly selected on the basis of creative programming.
Jacques Lacombe and the New Jersey Symphony had chosen the rarely performed Piano Concerto of Ferruccio Busoni, preceded by works of two composers in his circle. When the 24-year-old Edgard Varèse arrived in Berlin in 1907 to seek him out, he found a sympathetic mentor and friend who helped him get his career off the ground. More than five decades later, his Nocturnal was to be his last work, left unfinished at his death in 1965. Although it was completed by his student Chou Wen-chung, Varèse’s idiomatic voice is very much in evidence, especially in the writing for percussion. The male chorus and the soprano soloist alternate words and phrases from House of Incest by Anaïs Nin and syllables created by Varèse. This performance was somewhat slower than the suggested nine minutes and a greater sense of atmosphere could have been created. However, Hila Plitmann sang with great dramatic sense, absolute command of the difficult part and beauty of tone.
Kurt Weill’s Berliner Sinfonie (1921) was written when he was a student of Busoni’s at the Prussian Academy of Arts, but not under his close supervision. It seems to have been performed in a two-piano reduction at one of Busoni’s private concerts, but Weill never released it for public performance and left the score in Germany when he left there in 1933. It received its premiere in 1956, six years after Weill’s death. The single-movement work shows a young composer of intrinsic talent and potential. It’s a densely scored piece which, however, lacks the inevitability of the best music of its time. In spite of a dedicated and accomplished reading, Lacombe and the New Jersey Symphony could not overcome its inherent structural and textural problems.
Inevitably, the high point of the concert was Busoni’s extravagant, all-embracing Piano Concerto (1904), a portrait of the composer both as pianistic titan and as creative artist. Drawing upon both his Italian and German heritages, it poses enormous challenges to orchestra, soloist and conductor alike over its (on-average) seventy-minute span; it demands from all not only unflagging stamina but also an extraordinary range of colors and sonorities. Playing from memory, Marc-André Hamelin confidently overcame the most improbable aspects of the solo part, tirelessly summoning up a deep brazen sonority without a hint of harshness, yet projecting effortlessly in the most restrained passages. Orchestra and conductor clearly shared Hamelin’s dedication to and command of the work. Lacombe’s sense of its large structure was manifest throughout, as was his superb, tight collaboration with the soloist; the New Jersey Symphony offered polished collective and individual virtuosity along with unstrained depth of sound over the five-movement span.
The single minor disappointment was that the admirably prepared male chorus sounded too present at the beginning of its entry in the finale; while it might not be realistic to place the singers off-stage, as Busoni requested, some adjustment in timbre and diction, similar to the effect sought at the first choral entry in Mahler’s ‘Resurrection’ Symphony might have been appropriate. This notwithstanding, it was a major triumph both for the performers and for the work itself; may it bring more curiosity about and further performances of this fascinating master’s works. Hamelin whetted our appetite for such explorations by offering as an encore an elegant performance the fourth of Busoni’s 1908 Elegies, unexpectedly based on Greensleeves.