New York Philharmonic at David Geffen Hall – Stéphane Denève conducts Connesson, Roussel & Ravel – Vikingur Ólafsson plays Ravel’s G-major Piano Concerto

Guillaume Connesson
Les Cités de Lovecraft – I: Celephaïs
Piano Concerto in G
Bacchus et Ariane – Suite No.2
Daphnis et Chloé – Suite No.2

Víkingur Ólafsson (piano) 

New York Philharmonic
Stéphane Denève

Reviewed by: Susan Stempleski

Reviewed: 25 November, 2022
Venue: Wu Tsai Theater, David Geffen Hall, Lincoln Center, New York City

A smartly designed, extravagantly colorful program of twentieth- and twenty-first-century French music thematically linked to myth and fantasy.

‘Céléphaïs’, the first movement of Guillaume Connesson’s Les Cités de Lovecraft,written in homage to H. P. Lovecraft during 2017 aims to paint a musical portrait of locales in the celebrated writer’s Dream Cycle, a series of stories set in a fantastical world that can only be reached through sleep, here a journey through “the splendid city of Celephais” created in a dream by a man named Kuranes, is a tour de force of color. Highly accessible and alluring, the lavishly textured score employs a large percussion section, and as the music winds its way through Lovecraft’s dream city, a breathtaking array of effects that surprise the ear before ending in a radiant fortissimo. Stéphane Denève meticulously balanced dynamics and sonorities to elicit a voluptuous and intense performance.

In this, his Philharmonic debut, Víkingur Ólafsson proved more than equal to the myriad challenges in the Ravel. A cerebral and sensitive musician, he perfectly captured the jazzy lightness of the opening Allegramente. His delicate rendering of the lengthy solo that opens the central Adagio assai had a marvelous otherworldly quality, and in the final Presto his playing was more sparkling than frenetic. His elegant playing was matched throughout by the vibrant colors Denève drew from the ever-alert woodwinds and strings. Ólafsson’s encore, a graceful account of Bartók’s Three Folksongs from Csík echoed the ethereal atmosphere of the Concerto’s middle movement.

The Second Suite from Albert Roussel’s 1930 ballet, Bacchus and Ariane, provided a gentle opening to the concert’s second half, beginning with Ariane asleep after the demigod Theseus has abandoned her on the island of Naxos and goes on to relate how Bacchus rescues her and eventually carries her off to Mount Olympus where she becomes a goddess. Denève and the Philharmonic delivered a joyfully vivid account, bringing out all the score’s imagination and wit concluding with the rousing bacchanal and glorious coronation. Notable contributions came from Cynthia Phelp’s warm-hued viola and Roger Nye’s beguiling bassoon.

The concert concluded with Daphnis et Chloé. Denève shaped the evocative first section, ‘Lever du jour’, with a rapturous richness of line, with the Philharmonic strings sounding supremely expansive. In a performance full of memorable moments, there was some wonderfully luminous playing from the winds in the ‘Pantomime’, with Robert Langevin shaping the flute solo with dazzling brilliance leading to an exuberant and electrifying ‘Danse Générale’.

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