New York Philharmonic Summertime Classics – Alexander Gavrylyuk & Bramwell Tovey

Donna Diana – Overture
Brahms, orch. Dvořák
Hungarian Dances – Nos.17-21
Piano Concerto No.1 in E flat
Light Cavalry – Overture
Johann Strauss II
Pesther Csárdás, Op.23
Romanian Rhapsody No.1, Op.11

Alexander Gavrylyuk (piano)

New York PhilharmonicBramwell Tovey

Reviewed by: Lewis M. Smoley

Reviewed: 8 July, 2010
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York

Bramwell Tovey. Photograph: Tyler BoyeFor the last of four Summertime Classics programs, Bramwell Tovey conducted a variety of mostly light works, some familiar (even once popular) and some not so familiar, with Austro-Hungarian and Eastern European roots. Such a bill of fare is in keeping with the hackneyed presumption that we cotton to simpler, less demanding music in the heat of the summer than at other times.

This concert included several works that had their day in the sun some time ago and have unfortunately faded from view. Emil von Rezniček’s music deserves much more exposure than just the Overture to “Donna Diana” through which he achieved international recognition. In the old days when the theme songs of popular TV and Radio programs were borrowed from the classics (does anyone remember the theme song from the 1950s’ sci-fi show “Captain Video”?), some of us were first introduced to classical music in this way. Rezniček’s Overture (to an operetta recorded for the first time only recently) was used for the radio series “Challenge of the Yukon”, later transferred to television and renamed “Sergeant Preston of the Yukon”. Tovey’s unwaveringly energetic approach resulted in a seamless performance that gave the impression more of an Italian-opera overture than one from Bohemia.

The last five of Brahms’s 21 Hungarian Dances (for piano/four hands) were orchestrated by Dvořák (Brahms himself only scored three of them). Folk-dances and gypsy-music cavort with more courtly patter to provide much that is diverting. Tovey let the musicians enjoy themselves, acting like a band-master. Although a particularly Hungarian character in the performance was not noticeable, this was not an evening to be concerned with subtleties.

Liszt’s First Piano Concerto was the most substantial work on the program. Ukrainian-born pianist, Alexander Gavrylyuk, who now hails from Australia, gave a sensitive and passionate reading embellished with nuanced inflections that enhanced quieter solo passages and demonstrative intensity that virtually attacked the music when the orchestra threatened to drown him. Still relatively young, this highly accomplished pianist has already established himself as a major talent, winning first prize at the 1999 Horowitz International Piano Competition, the Hamamatsu International Piano Competition in Japan in 2000 and the 2005 Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Masters Competition, and performing with major orchestras the world over. He is clearly immersed in the music he performs, sometimes even using a free hand to shape the music he plays with the other (possibly a symptom of a predilection for conducting?).

The concert’s second half featured the first performances by the NYP of the obscure but fascinating Pesther Csárdás, a csárdás from Pest, the twinned city of Buda that forms the modern Budapest, and an arrangement of music from “The Merry Widow”. It opened with an old favorite less-often-played than once it was, the Overture to Franz von Suppé’s operetta, “Light Cavalry”. Even if memory of the title has faded, recognition of the opening fanfare and galloping theme has not. There is an identifiable Hungarian flavor to some of this music and was given a rousing, energetic and superbly played performance imbued with an Italianesque character (Suppé was distantly related to Donizetti), particularly evident in the lyrical clarinet solo.

The most interesting piece was the piece by Johann Strauss II. Apparently composed for his appearance in Pest during an extensive tour, Pesther Csárdás is a compilation of popular folk-dances, in both slow and fast tempos, that include both the courtly lassú and the peasant friss. Although Tovey kept referring to the date of composition as 1821 (several years before Johann II was born), it was written in 1846. Tovey clearly enjoyed its delightful sequence of dances, conducting the work with enthusiasm and panache. Lehár’s waltz-sequence, Sirens of the Ball, cannot help but please and stimulate, and was here stylishly played.

George Enescu’s once frequently-played Romanian Rhapsody (the first of a pair) provided a delightful conclusion. Most impressive were the marvelous woodwind and viola solos. Although the performance lacked even a hint of recognizably Romanian idiomatic flair, why quibble (at least in this context) when we all had such fun with it! Tovey (whose delightful patter between pieces delivered in the style of a stand-up comic added measurably to the enjoyment) played it straight, as he did with most of the evening’s fare, keeping tempos lively, the results aggressive, especially during the rousing conclusion, and rarely engaging in affectation. As an encore, and appropriate the current weather forecast, was Thunder and Lightning Polka.

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