Philadelphia Orchestra/Dutoit in New York – Szymanowski, Debussy & Stravinsky

Symphonie concertante for Piano and Orchestra, Op.60 (Symphony No.4)
La mer – three symphonic sketches
The Rite of Spring

Piotr Anderszewski (piano)

Philadelphia Orchestra
Charles Dutoit

Reviewed by: Elizabeth Barnette

Reviewed: 13 April, 2010
Venue: Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City

Charles DutoitDuring a time of financial strain, Karol Szymanowski wrote his Fourth Symphony, also known as Symphonie concertante, as a vehicle for himself since, according to Christopher Gibbs’s program-note, “the chance to perform brought Szymanowski much larger fees than composing did.” Although the work is dedicated to Artur Rubinstein, the composer himself was at the piano for the premiere in Poznan in 1932; the performance was a success and he continued playing it for the remaining five years of his life.

In letters Szymanowski refers to the composition as “the concerto”, but his designation Symphonie concertante provides a more accurate description. While the piano is featured throughout, there are few truly soloistic passages, and it is often part of the symphonic fabric. This proved to be a problem in this performance, as the orchestra tended to overwhelm the soloist in loud stretches. Polish-Hungarian pianist Piotr Anderszewski, who had dedicated this performance to the victims of the recent plane crash near Katyn, did his best to get maximum volume from his bright Steinway, but he fought a losing battle against Szymanowski’s dense orchestration and the lush sound of the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Piotr Anderszewski. Photograph: Robert Workman/Askonas HoltThe piano part often features rapid parallel and unison passages, most prominently in the short first-movement cadenza, which Anderszewski executed brilliantly. He also exhibited his lyrical touch in the second movement, where Szymanowski explores leaner textures. Violin, trumpet and timpani solos over sustained low strings, eventually build up to a powerful climax, while a delicate piano filigree leads to the finale, a lively romp in triple meter with hints of military drums as well as dance rhythms. Although Szymanowski is far less known than his compatriots Chopin and Lutoslawski, in this performance Anderszewski, Dutoit and the orchestra made a strong argument for the Symphonie concertante, whetting one’s appetite for more of the composer’s music.

The works following this concerto are staples of the repertoire, and especially during this orchestra’s and the conductor’s performance history. Dutoit was obviously intimately familiar with La mer, yet somehow it never rose above the level of a routine performance. Although he grew up in the French-speaking part of Switzerland, there was little Gallic sensuality or Impressionistic haze; one was reminded of what George Szell’s interpretations used to be called – “Das Meer”. The Philadelphia Orchestra plays this music marvelously, but it lacked interpretative refinement.

The Rite of Spring similarly was extremely well executed, starting with a breathtakingly beautiful bassoon solo and woodwind playing, but also short on artistic depth and, most of all, character. Dutoit’s rushed tempos in the slower sections, such as the Introduction to part two, robbed them of their underlying menace, and a paucity of truly soft dynamics curtailed the scope of build-up to Stravinsky’s violent outbursts. Hearing this music played by the Philadelphia Orchestra is a pleasure in itself, but it was somewhat frustrating not to experience it in all of its magnificence. Dutoit seemed to walk with a slight limp, and one is left to wonder if a health issue could have been a factor in his less than fully committed performance.

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