New York Philharmonic/Salonen David Fray – Bartók, Ravel & Debussy

Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta
Piano Concerto in G
La mer – three symphonic sketches

David Fray (piano)

New York Philharmonic
Esa-Pekka Salonen

Reviewed by: David M. Rice

Reviewed: 3 December, 2009
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York City

Esa-Pekka Salonen. Photograph: Nicho SödlingThis is Esa-Pekka Salonen’s third stint with the New York Philharmonic. He first appeared as a guest conductor in 1986, but he did not return again until 2007, when his Piano Concerto was premiered by Yefim Bronfman, and he had to cancel a scheduled visit earlier this year owing to back problems. (During his present visit to New York, Salonen also made his Metropolitan Opera debut, conducting Janáček’s “From the House of the Dead”.)

The concert began with a vibrant performance of Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta. In the extraordinary Andante fugue that comprises its opening movement, the Philharmonic’s strings – arranged according to the composer’s instructions in two antiphonally seated ensembles – played with exceptional precision, cued by Salonen’s sweeping gestures, voicing the fugue subject at progressively higher and lower pitches according to the ‘circle of fifths’ to a climax at the most remote key from the starting point. Individual string voices were then heard with marvellous clarity of tone as the progression of keys unwound, with the celesta joining softly just before the movement’s quiet conclusion.

The percussion instruments arrayed in the centre of the stage between the two string orchestras played a more prominent role in the exciting Allegro. Salonen kept these forces in balance, exploiting Bartók’s striking contrapuntal effects. Salonen sustained a mysterious aura in the Adagio (an example of Bartók’s ‘night music’, which featured gentle percussion effects beginning with the xylophone and timpani, eerie string harmonics, harp glissandos, ascending and descending scales on the celesta, and a staccato piano solo accompanied by string tremolos. There was plenty of figurative paprika in the folk-dance-like finale, including strumming strings and a piano/four-hands passage.

After the interval, the French pianist David Fray, making his New York Philharmonic debut, gave a sparkling performance of Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G. His prodigious technique was breathtaking in the trill-laden first movement cadenza as well as in the breakneck finale, but he also played with nuanced sensitivity in the Adagio assai, preserving the separation of the persistent triple-meter rhythm in the left-hand and the melody in the right. Fray has said that he does not regard himself as a French pianist – he wishes to emulate Wilhelm Kempff – but his French birthplace, residence, musical training and idiomatic playing belie his disclaimer.

Ravel’s score is rich in orchestral colours and Gershwin-influenced jazzy riffs, all of which the Philharmonic played expertly under Salonen. There were particularly fine contributions from a number of the orchestra’s principals: harpist Nancy Allen in the first movement; Thomas Stacy on cor anglais and Robert Langevin on flute in the second; and Judith LeClair on bassoon and Pascual Martinez Forteza on E flat clarinet in the finale.

Salonen concluded the concert with a powerful account of Debussy’s La mer, evoking sumptuous sounds from the strings and brilliant, colourful accents from the winds and brass to paint the work’s three seascapes. He took the opening movement, ‘De l’aube à midi sur la mer’ (From dawn to midday on the sea), at a lively tempo, the undulations of the strings emulating the surging of the sea with the timpani and tam-tam adding pulse and depth. Well-played solos by concertmaster Glenn Dicterow and principal oboe Liang Wang provided a brief languid interlude, and muted trombones and trumpets added a soft but regal touch. The warm tones of the cellos (divided into four parts) were accompanied by four horns in an appealing passage, there was more excellent playing by Thomas Stacy, and the brass chorale at the movement’s end was quite thrilling.

In ‘Jeux de vagues’ (Play of the waves), Salonen kept the atmosphere bright and playful, as percussion, harps and trumpets provided scintillating touches over the surges of the strings. ‘Dialogue du vent et de la mer’ (Dialogue of the wind and the sea) had a stormier outlook, emphasized by the low strings, brass and percussion, with some brighter intervals. Salonen kept its impulsive thread moving continuously, with glorious high-pitched colors from piccolo, trumpets and cornets à piston sparkling above the richness of the brass chorale and strings at the powerful fff conclusion.

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