Estampes – Pagodes
Couleurs de la cité céleste
Emanuel Ax (piano)
New York Philharmonic
Reviewed by: Lewis M. Smoley
Reviewed: 28 April, 2011
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York City
This concert marked Emanuel Ax’s 100th-performance with the New York Philharmonic. After Alan Gilbert said a few words in tribute to Ax, who has been a part of New York’s concert scene for nearly forty years, the Philharmonic’s president, Zarin Mehta, presented the pianist with a plaque to certify his election as an honorary member of The Philharmonic-Symphony Society of New York. (Please see Classical Source News item dated April 29.) Unaware that he would be receiving this acclamation, Ax was visibly moved and expressed his deep appreciation. He then played Debussy’s Pagodes to make the connection with Messiaen’s Couleurs de la cité céleste. The pentatonic modality and oriental coloring of the Debussy seemed an apt introduction to the Messiaen. Although Ax does not have the lightness of touch that can make the filigree sparkle, he combined a fluid line with strong chordal passages to evoke the wondrous splendor of Chinese Buddhist temples.
Messiaen’s fragmentary figures that pervade Couleurs de la cité céleste are hardly filigree and provide more than embellishment. They serve as mimetic birdsong that infuses the work with a nature-like quality that runs the gamut from sweet calls to raucous caterwauling. Written in 1963, this magical work springs from quotations – involving rainbows, angels, and stars – from the Apocalypse from Revelations. To generate such coloristic effects, in addition to the solo piano, Messiaen uses an ensemble of clarinets, horns, trumpets, trombones, and much percussion, mostly pitched, for music based entirely upon colors – thematic, melodic or rhythmic – which produce sonic and timbral complexes that evolve in profusion and are perpetually renewed. These vividly drawn and superimposed hues play-out in the unfolding of a non-narrative drama. Plainsong, Alleluias, and Greek and Hindu rhythms, evoke sound-colors as symbolic representations of the Celestial City viewed from an earthbound vantage point. The work ends virtually as it begins, yet transformed like a rose-window of flamboyant and invisible colors. Gilbert highlighted the contrast between the winds’ darting, astringent bird-sounds with the warmer tones of a pungent brass chorale occasionally decorated with a brilliant display of complex rhythms on the xylophone and marimba, tightly-knit, incisive playing that concentrated on the more-violent scraps of music that break through the sinister darkness. Unendurable chaos converges with utter silence as a portent of doom. Ax handled the tricky solo passages brilliantly.
Mahler’s Fifth Symphony filled the second half of the program. Gilbert has yet to develop an especially individual manner of interpreting Mahler’s extensive and complex scores. Gilbert’s tempos are often energetic, but sometimes pressed to the point of being hurried; and hyped-up volume-levels during muscular tutti passages, often rushed through only to linger at the highpoint, distorts the overall structure. Such as in the finale, in which, before the coda, Mahler brings back the heaven-storming ‘chorale’ passage from the second movement. When it returns its appearance is not sudden but well prepared for. Gilbert undercut this important effect by hurrying through it. Given Gilbert’s concentration on high volume heavy with brass, the finale was more a boisterous effusion of pomposity than a joyous celebration of love. After intense, dramatic readings of Part One, which captured both the tragedy of the opening funeral march with weighty brass and forceful accents, and the raging anger of the second movement, the high-energy middle movement wallowed in self-indulgent frivolity. The Adagietto (a love-letter to Alma) provides the turning point through which tragedy and purposeless whirl are overcome in the finale. That perspective seemed to elude Gilbert. Instead, he merely gave us a high-powered, agitated reading, only tempered during the closing section of the slow movement. It may have excited the audience but rides roughshod over Mahler’s intensions and misses the narrative thread that holds this magnificent work together.