…quasi una fantasia…, Op.27/1
Piano Concerto No.3 in C minor, Op.37
The Rite of Spring
Leif Ove Andsnes (piano)
New York Philharmonic
Reviewed by: Lewis M. Smoley
Reviewed: 19 September, 2012
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York City
A few minor gaffes notwithstanding, the New York Philharmonic was in fine fettle for its opening concert of the 2012-13 Season.
György Kurtág’s …quasi una fantasia… was the first music played. Hungarian Kurtág (although born in Romania in 1926) began his music studies in Budapest. After the Hungarian revolt in 1956, he spent time in Paris, studying with Olivier Messiaen and Darius Milhaud. During his Paris sojourn, Kurtág suffered from severe depression, brought on by believing his ideals were unrealizable in a world so remote from them. But soon after discovering the music of Webern and the plays of Beckett, Kurtág found the courage to move past his emotional affliction and compose. …quasi una fantasia… (1988) for piano and various instrumental groups placed throughout the audience has an apparent titular reference to Beethoven’s pair of piano sonatas, Opus 27, one being the ‘Moonlight’ Sonata. Consisting of four movements, the Kurtág is about nine minutes long, and attempts to merge audience and performers by placing the latter within the former. In this performance only Leif Ove Andsnes’s piano and the timpani shared the stage with Alan Gilbert, the rest of the instrumental groups were placed at the back of the hall, creating a front-rear stereophony. A slow, soft descending scale on the piano and evenly placed timpani beats set the stage for what is to come and reappear toward the end. The atmosphere is primeval and mystic. Out of nowhere the instrumental groups enter at a rapid pace with fragmented figures that create a nightmarish vision of chaos, a terrifying processional, like giants stalking the earth. The music softens to an imperceptible and elegiac hush before the piano’s opening stepwise figure returns, now played to simple wind tones, closing the work in a hauntingly serene atmosphere.
There followed Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto. Andsnes, in the process of recording Beethoven’s piano concertos, has often appeared with the NYP. He and Alan Gilbert work well together. Andsnes’s light touch, deft fluidity and unaffected reading fitted hand-in-glove with Gilbert’s approach, although the conductor had a tendency to force accents too strongly for what is principally a work of Mozartean elegance. Although occasionally Andsnes applied force to left-hand chords, he did so only to reinforce a passage’s dramatic character.But he glided effortlessly through the rapid passagework in the first and last movements. Andsnes’s introspective manner came through in the way he subtly caressed a particular phrase, and in the Largo he elegantly conjured up a serene dream-like atmosphere, only disturbed toward the end by over-emphasis on each note of a rising stepwise sequence. His command was extraordinary.
The concert’s second part was given over to Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. Judith LeClair, played the opening bassoon solo with an extra measure of rubato. Gilbert set an energetic pace for the Introduction and woodwinds executed their complex rhythms deftly. A vigorous ‘Dance of the Young Girls’, laced with off-beat accents, was possibly the most engaging section of the performance. Woodwinds consistently produced a glazing sonic brightness throughout Part I. Horns penetrated the dense profusion of sound with terrifying whoops during the ‘Ritual of Abduction’ and blazed through the ‘Ritual of the Two Rival Tribes’ to the closing ‘Dance of the Earth’ with flaming intensity and provocatively scathing dissonances, ending in what could only be described as pulsating hysteria. A dark, cold aura hung over the introduction to Part II, with its almost supernatural sense of timeless space. A rather hurried pace was set for the flute solo during ‘Mystic Circle of The Young Girls’. The orchestra was impressive during the rapid-fire ‘The Naming and Honouring of the Chosen One’, which anticipates the close in its rhythmic and metric difficulty. But for ‘Evocation of the Ancestors’ Gilbert’s rapid pace detracted from the awesome dread that should emanate from this music. Intensity began to flag and a more mechanical stiffness weakened the concluding ‘Sacrificial Dance’. This final section was always the conducting student’s greatest challenge, with its constantly shifting meters. But conductors and musicians are now well-schooled in these and much greater technical difficulties. Yet the shockingly grotesque rhythms with which Stravinsky conjures up the vision of a young maiden dancing herself to death seemed rather tame. Too much restraint here and earlier significantly restricted impact confined what this terrifying music can still engender.