New York Philharmonic/Maazel Pierre-Laurent Aimard

Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments
Symphonie fantastique, Op.14

Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano)

New York Philharmonic
Lorin Maazel

Reviewed by: Susan Stempleski

Reviewed: 3 June, 2006
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, New York City

Music Director Lorin Maazel and pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard ended the New York Philharmonic’s 2005-2006 season in an adventurous mode, with music by Elliott Carter and Stravinsky, and an electrifying performance of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique.

French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, a champion of contemporary music, was the soloist in the two works that made up the first half of the program: Carter’s Dialogues for piano and chamber orchestra, composed in 2003, and Stravinsky’s delightful but rarely-heard Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments, composed in 1923-1924, and revised in 1950. Both performances were spellbinding.

Elliott Carter conceived Dialogues (written on commission from the BBC for the English pianist Nicolas Hodges) as “a conversation between the soloist and the orchestra”. The work unfolds as a loosely structured conversational encounter, in which a series of “dialogues” is played out between the piano and groups of instruments, or between the piano and other individual parts, most notably the English horn near the beginning or the work, and the oboe later on. Occasionally the piano and orchestra play together, but as the conversation evolves within a single varied movement, the intermittent responses and interruptions of the other instruments mostly contrast with the long line of the piano. The English horn starts the piece, haltingly, then the piano bursts in, and the orchestra responds with a series of barbed chords. Sometimes the piano and other instruments chatter away wittily, and at other times the confrontation becomes more heated. But the music is always dramatic and energetic, as both the characters and their styles of speech change, until the end, where a reconciliation of sorts is suggested.

Carter’s fiendishly difficult music is tailor-made for Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s prodigious technique. Aimard’s assured playing was by turns dazzling, delicate, and lucid as he executed the this fitful and impetuous score.

During the enthusiastic applause that followed the piece, the 97-year-old Carter, a native New Yorker, appeared on stage. As the sold-out audience stood up and cheered, the pianist walked over to the composer, and then the two stood together and chatted for a minute or so, while Maestro Maazel looked on and beamed with delight.

In the inventive Stravinsky concerto, which combines only wind instruments with the piano, Aimard kept up a lively dialogue with the wind and brass ensemble, whose playing perfectly matched the pianist’s precision and bite. In a performance that emphasized the neo-classical nature of the piece – its crisp and energetic dance rhythms, bustling configurations, and frequent bursts of acerbic wit – the pianist also succeeded in bringing out the lyric beauty that lies within the work. In both the Carter and the Stravinsky, Maazel led the Philharmonic musicians in performances that exuded a tremendous sense of authority in this challenging music.

Following the intermission, Maazel revealed a strongly characterized account of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique. There were some expressive exaggerations, especially in the opening movement, which displayed great intensity, especially in the hushed strings. The other movements spurted away. The ‘Waltz’ was wonderfully elegant, the ‘March to the Scaffold’ commandingly powerful, and the ‘Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath’ exhibited particularly great verve. In the third movement, the ‘Scene in the Fields’, Philharmonic principals Thomas Stacy on English horn and Sherry Sylar on oboe contributed superbly matched playing. Overall, this was an exuberant account, full of life and color, one that conveyed to a rare degree the wild, volatile quality of Berlioz’s music.

As an encore, and prior to a tour of Italy, Maazel and the Philharmonic gave a highly-charged performance of Berlioz’s Roman Carnival Overture.

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