New York Philharmonic/Maazel – Hindemith Premiere

Piano Concerto No.12 in A, K414
Piano Music with Orchestra (Piano: Left Hand), Op.29 [New York premiere]
Bacchus et Ariane – Suite No.2
Salome – Final Scene

Leon Fleisher (piano)

Nancy Gustafson (soprano)

William Parry (narrator)

New York Philharmonic
Lorin Maazel

Reviewed by: Susan Stempleski

Reviewed: 30 November, 2006
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, New York City

Lorin Maazel led the New York Philharmonic in this eclectic program featuring two soloists: pianist Leon Fleisher performing two piano concertos on the first half, and on the second half, soprano Nancy Gustafson singing the hair-raising final scene of Strauss’s “Salome”.

The program began with Mozart’s genial Piano Concerto in A, composed in 1782, one of a set of three that Mozart described in a letter to his father as, “a happy medium between what is too easy and too difficult … pleasing to the ear, and natural, without being vapid.” Fleisher gave a graceful performance, emphasizing the gentle wistfulness beneath the surface of the opening Allegro’s blithely lyrical theme, and the orchestra supported him with calm and tasteful playing. Still, at times, the performance seemed too slow and a little placid, at least until the final Allegretto, done at a brisk tempo and dispatched with buoyant vitality.

The indisputable highlight of the evening was the performance of Hindemith’s 1923 Piano Music with Orchestra (Piano: Left Hand). The work, like so many concertos for the left hand, was commissioned by Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein. After losing his right arm during World War I, Wittgenstein used a substantial inheritance to commission various European composers (including Ravel, Strauss, Prokofiev, Britten and Korngold) to write music for his exclusive use. Being conservative in his tastes, Wittgenstein never played many of his more adventurous commissions, including Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand and Hindemith’s Piano Music with Orchestra, and because he refused to release the rights to them, several of the commissioned works were left unperformed until after his death.

The Hindemith piece, composed in 1923, was not performed until December of 2004, when it was premiered in Berlin by Fleisher, Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic. This performance marked its New York premiere. The work consists of four movements played without pause, and calls for an orchestra that is larger than usual in Hindemith’s work. The music is very powerful and dramatic, combining astonishingly explosive moments with passages of great lyricism. The outer movements are full of color, drive and musical wit. The central slow movement is a wonder: a long solo for English horn – eloquently played on this occasion by Philharmonic principal Thomas Stacy – over a basso ostinato in the cellos and double basses, with an obbligato piano gently circling round and round. Fleisher’s playing of this very difficult piece was marvelous – full of grace, spirit and depth. Under Maazel, the orchestra’s exuberant, virtuoso playing made a considerable contribution to this spectacular performance of a wonderful work.

The second half of the concert consisted of music for the stage. Roussel’s ballet-score of Bacchus et Ariane captures the Greek legend of Bacchus and Ariadne and is based on the events that take place after Ariadne helps Theseus escape from the Minotaur and the Labyrinth. When Theseus leaves Ariadne, she finds consolation in the arms of the Bacchus. The music included in Suite No.2 is energetic, melodic and highly pictorial. Maazel and the orchestra delivered a highly atmospheric and sensitive account, played with tremendous zest.

The program ended with the very capable American soprano Nancy Gustafson singing the final scene from Richard Strauss’s opera “Salome”. This performance featured an eloquently-delivered, but totally superfluous, spoken introduction performed by Broadway veteran William Barry. Aside from some minimal interjections by Herod and Herodias (omitted in this concert performance), the scene is a gruelling tour de force for the soprano singing the title role. In ecstasy at the prospect of kissing the severed head of Jochanaan (John the Baptist), Salome goes into high voltage and then her voice softens as the orchestral music flows along with her. As her psychopathic mind moves from fancy to fancy, the music reflects her rapture. Gustafson sang the punishing music with accuracy and gorgeous sound, her high notes easily slicing through the thick orchestral textures. Maazel and the Philharmonic musicians provided a powerful and passionate accompaniment to her intense performance.

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