Sunday, January 31, 2010

National Philharmonic - Mussorgsky, Prokofiev & Tchaikovsky - 01/31/10

Conductor: Piotr Gajewski
Mussorgsky: Night on a Bald Mountain
Prokofiev: Concerto for Piano (Left hand) and Orchestra, No 4, Op 53 - Leon Fleisher
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No 6 in B Minor, Op. 74, "Pathétique"

What more appropriate than a cold, white Sunday afternoon to go back to Strathmore for a concert dedicated to Russian music? Much beloved pianist, conductor and teacher Leon Fleisher was the special guest and scheduled to handle the concerto for piano for the left hand by Prokofiev, a particularly fitting endeavor considering the right-hand paralysis that stopped him at the pinnacle of his career and prevented him from being a traditional musician for decades. Fortunately, his persistence and the progress of science have allowed him to fully recover and be again the much-sought soloist he once was. After Jeremy Denk and Radu Lupu, I have to say I have been very lucky in the pianist department lately. And I felt even luckier when I saw that the rest of the program featured Mussorgsky's delightfully spooky Night on a Bald Mountain and Tchaikovsky's relentlessly gripping Pathétique symphony.

Mussorgsky's Night on a Bald Mountain of course brings to mind what is probably the scariest part of the Disney film Fantasia, in which ghouls and skeletons go dance at the top of a bald mountain with a big black Satan before the festivities are eventually interrupted by dawn, an episode faithfully in line with the original Russian folk tale that inspired the composition. This afternoon, the Rimsky-Korsakov-improved score resounded with unrestrained force in the concert hall, energetically conjuring up the same type of devilish fun, never mind that it was taking place in a most upscale Maryland suburb.
Commissioned by the Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein after he lost his right hand during World War I, Prokofiev's piano concerto for the left hand was never actually played by his particularly finicky recipient and just disappeared. A quarter of a century later a German pianist having lost his right hand during World War II asked Prokofiev's widow to dig it out after hearing about it. Bless his heart! It is a nice little piece, with three whimsical movements and a lushly lyrical second one. Leon Fleisher having suffered to some degree the same handicap as the two previous pianists obviously has a special connection to this non-traditional composition, and he gave a remarkably nuanced and perkily light-hearted interpretation of it.
As talented and generous as the two other piano men I've heard recently, he also went way beyond the call of duty, with his two hands this time, and responded to our endless ovation with a substantial, if not Russian, encore: Sheep May Safely Graze by Bach's Cantata No 208. Here again, he easily enchanted everybody with the delicacy of his touch, discreetly highlighting the lovely recurring melody and the overall sing-song quality of that extra goodie.
But a Russian-centric concert wouldn't be complete without Tchaikovsky, so after getting to hear three of his shorter works a couple of days ago, I was more than ready for his beautiful swan song, the ever-popular Pathétique, probably my favorite among his symphonies. All the familiar themes were there, the unbridled confidence of the first movement, the awkward waltz of the second one, the triumphant march of the third one, and the poignant, whispering death of the fourth one. Today, the famously false ending after the third movement was all the more believable as maestro Gajewski turned to the audience with the exhilarated expression of a marathon winner catching his breath after making it through the finish line, which to some extent he was. Once the clapping subdued, we did get to enjoy one of classical music's most moving conclusions. It was a hair-raising, no-holds-barred performance, a more than fitting way to end an official Russian concert and an unofficial Tchaikovsky week.

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